Years ago, I moved to a community in a different state for a new job. While driving to work on the first day, I was involved in a number of near-miss automobile accidents. Let me describe a risky driving behavior, which I quickly learned was “the way we drive around here”.
Drivers approached an intersection with a traffic light. The green light turned to yellow. As expected, one or two cars entered the intersection while the light was still yellow. But what I observed next surprised me. After the light turned red, the next three drivers continued through the intersection. Remarkably, the cars in the opposing lanes (who had a green light) paused for 3 or 4 seconds for the red light violators to clear, then drove through the intersection. When the light turned red for opposing lanes of traffic, the same behavior repeated. The unspoken norm was that a “red light” meant that 3 more cars were allowed to pass through the intersection….the 4th car should stop. The amazing thing to me was that somehow everyone knew that this was the rule. At first, I thought this was an isolated incident. As I soon discovered, this happened at every intersection.
Now imagine someone who had never been to this town (me) approaching an intersection – and expecting that red means stop and green means go. It took me four or five close encounters (of the wrong kind) at intersections with local drivers to figure out what was happening. I quickly adapted to the local behavior. By the time I arrived back home, I was Driver #3 going through a red light. No consequences. No tickets. In fact, local police cars were following the same protocol! (I learned later that 3 cars was indeed the limit. If the police observed a 4th car driving through a red light, that person was always ticketed).
What was going on here? How could every local person in this large community end up developing and accepting a norm that was clearly violating the standard? One explanation could be the concept of entropy. The dictionary provides one definition as follows:
en·tro·py lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.
Have you ever wondered why some people don’t seem to be motivated to take action, even when what you are asking them to do is clearly the “right thing” ?
Have you noticed that some desirable habits are relatively easy to develop, while you struggle to make other habits a part of your routine?
Have you become frustrated when someone repeats a poor habit or behavior, in spite of a recent detailed coaching conversation?
Dr. BJ Fogg of Stanford University developed a behavior model that helps us to understand how to influence someone. The Fogg Behavior Model shows that three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing or insufficient. His model is depicted in the graphic below.
Regardless of the approach that is used for continuous improvement, at some point in the process the team will engage in a discussion to identify potential solutions. The most common methods include silent brainstorming or a round-robin format, collecting the ideas from all team members for consideration by the team. Often, this can be very productive. A sufficient number of ideas is obtained and the team reaches consensus on which ones to implement.
However, one limitation of these conventional brainstorming techniques is that the ideas are generated within our existing paradigms. In other words, every one thinks about potential solutions in the context of how we currently do things. As a result, the improvements that are made tend to be incremental in nature.
But what if we are seeking significantly higher levels of performance? Will the ideas that the team implements be sufficient to get us there? Or what if we have already made several improvements to the process, but the performance level is still not where we need it to be?
The team may need to leverage an alternative way of thinking to generate new and different solutions. The Creative Challenge E/R/A approach is designed to question the current solutions. It allows us to investigate the current way that work gets done – and surfaces alternative solutions that could be even better than the existing ones.
“If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.”
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to work with a group of four supervisors at a manufacturing site. I spent a week with each supervisor, with the objective of getting to know each person better. After a month rotating among the supervisors, it was clear that there were stark differences in how each of them related to their respective crews. The contrast in styles was greatest when comparing Mitch with Harold.
Mitch considered himself to be “old-school” and was proud of it. He had spent nearly twenty years in various line positions at the plant, eventually working his way into a senior operator role before being promoted to supervisor. He was a no-nonsense guy who ruled with an iron fist and a commanding voice. His philosophy was to set the rules and hold people accountable when they were violated. Mitch believed his primary responsibilities were to “keep the line running” and to “make sure that no one does anything stupid.” During the shift, he could often be found in the supervisor’s office area, unless the line was down for some reason. His crew tended to have the least senior people, mainly because there was a lot of bidding to move to another supervisor’s crew.
Harold also spent many years as an operator in the same facility before accepting a supervisor position. He had a calm demeanor and spent most of his time on the floor, listening to his crew members. He frequently answered any questions with a question of his own, “What do you think we should do?” Harold challenged his crew to come up with solutions, not just to identify the problems. I would overhear him privately praising each person, telling them that they were among the best operators he had ever been around. When someone made a mistake, he would make it a point to ask the individual what lesson was learned and what we could do differently the next time. Harold’s crew had the most senior people. It was clear that they respected Harold and valued the opportunity to work on his crew.
“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill
Greg was always naturally curious.
As a boy, he would tinker in his father’s workshop, often taking things apart just to see how they worked (much to the annoyance of Dad). He would take various things from the shop and piece them together, hoping to make something new – something that was his. In science class, students were paired up to make model rockets. Everyone was given the same materials and a solid rocket engine. On “launch” day, the model rockets were ignited on the football field. All the rockets hurtled skyward for several hundred feet before the fuel was exhausted and they floated back to earth. Except for one. Greg and his lab partner’s rocket whistled out of sight – never to be seen again. When quizzed about what he did, Greg just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I just changed a few things that I thought could make it go higher. I guess it worked.”
Perhaps you have found yourself in this situation.
Your team has been diligent in using a structured process to solve a vexing problem. Most everyone seems to be engaged. Quite a few ideas have been generated. The team has used a criteria matrix or other sorting tool to narrow the choices to the best solution. It seems clear what action is next. The group needs to decide how to implement the improvement.
There is an uneasiness in the air. You can sense it.
You can see it in the way that Jennifer is tilting her head as the team’s proposal is summarized.
Matt prefaces his comment with, “I guess I’m OK with this solution, since everyone else seems to be.”
Susan wonders aloud if the crew will accept this new process design.
Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like all the team members are confident in the solution. You find yourself wondering, “Didn’t we stack hands on this solution already? Why didn’t I hear about these concerns earlier? What did I miss?”
At a time like this, it might be helpful to put on a hat. Or better yet, six hats.