We automatically accept what we are taught and exclude all other lines of thought. The same thing happens when we see something odd or unusual in our experiences. We tend to accept whatever explanation someone with experience tells us. This kind of thinking reminds me of herring gulls. Herring gulls have a drive to remove all red objects from their nest. They also have a drive to retrieve any egg that rolls away from the nest. If you place a red egg in the nest, when the gull returns she will push it out, then roll it back in, then push it out again, only to retrieve it once more.
People sometimes do the same in the workplace. How many times have you heard “It has always been done this way. Don’t mess with what works. Don’t rock the boat.” Instead of challenging these assumptions many of us simply keep reproducing what has been done before. It’s the easiest and safest thing to do.
Imagine a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, you’ll see a banana hanging on a string with a set of stairs placed under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, all of the other monkeys are sprayed with ice cold water.
After a while, another monkey makes an attempt to obtain the banana. As soon as his foot touches the stairs, all of the other monkeys are again sprayed with ice cold water. It’s not long before all of the other monkeys try to prevent any monkey from climbing the stairs.
Now, remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him as he makes his way toward the stairs. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked.
Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.
After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.
Why not? People sometimes do the same in the workplace. How many times have you heard “It has always been done this way. Don’t mess with what works.” Instead of challenging these assumptions many of us simply keep reproducing what has been done before. It’s the easiest thing to do.
At a seminar, a participant told me a humorous story he was told as an example of where this kind of acceptance of assumptions can lead. A quality management consultant was hired by a small English manufacturing company to advise them on improving general operating efficiency. The company produced a report which dealt with various aspects of productivity. At the top-right corner of one form, there was a small box. The consultant noted that the figure ‘0’ had been written in every such report for the past year. On questioning the members of staff who completed the report, they told him that they always put a zero in that box, and when he asked them why they told him they were told do so by their supervisor. The supervisor told him he guessed it had to do with accidents but wasn’t sure. It had always been “0” for the twenty-five years he had been there, so he continued the practice. It, too, was something he was told to do by his former supervisor.
The consultant could find no one in the company who could tell him what the box represented. Intrigued, he went to the warehouse where the company kept its archives to see what he could discover about the form. The company was founded in 1937 and the records were preserved all the way back to 1941. He found the old reports, he saw that the zero return had continued uninterrupted for as far back as the records extended. Eventually, he found the box that catalogued all the originals of the forms the company had used during its history dating back to 1941. In it, he found the original report, in pristine condition. In the top right corner was the mysterious box, with the heading clearly shown …… ‘Number of Air Raids Today.’ Over time, the heading disappeared but the box remained.
(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. http://www.creativethinking.net)