There are several ways to push past thought linearity, the model in which all employees ultimately think and act in the same prescribed way that offers no creative business stimulus. The first is by shifting employees past what a Brain Pickings article calls the “OK Plateau.” Thought of by science writer Joshua Foer, the plateau is probably where most of your employees are currently at. Foer describes the plateau as the three states that people pass through in their acquisition of new skills, adding that:
“We start in the “cognitive phase,” during which we’re intellectualizing the task, discovering new strategies to perform better, and making lots of mistakes. We’re consciously focusing on what we’re doing. Then we enter the “associative stage,” when we’re making fewer errors, and gradually getting better. Finally, we arrive at the “autonomous stage,” when we turn on autopilot and move the skill to the back of our proverbial mental filing cabinet and stop paying it conscious attention.”
It’s called the autopilot mode where tasks are now so routine they’re not only mundane but there’s very little thought behind them. Consider how many times you walk into your office every morning. Everyday it’s the same herd of people shuffling through; every morning it’s the same sit-at-your-desk-and-switch-your-computer-on routine…usually in blistering silence since many companies still have an antiquated “no talking rule.” Uniformity in behavior and environment has contributed to what is falsely perceived as perfection in business tasks, because here managers, supervisors and other leaders have been looking to ‘contain’ movement and processes. Here’s a newsflash: this is how cattle herders think. This shouldn’t be how leaders think about people. It’s also no wonder that so many well-intentioned leaders scratch their head wondering why they can’t get increased employee performance or creative input: it’s because they haven’t built an environment that fosters that thinking.
Ultimately the problem with an “OK Plateau” is that it’s a plateau. There’s no room for improvement and (therefore) no hope of increased performance or results. Inspired by psychologists and sourced from the above mentioned Brain Pickings article, there “a number of strategies to help us overcome this stagnation by overriding our auto-mode.” The first is through what’s termed as ‘reflective failure’, and the second is through an accommodation of mistakes-making.
Artist and strategist Debbie Millman gave a speech to that graduating class at San Jose State University, in which she advocated against certainty and in favor of the unfamiliar – words which I’m sure are would leave many leaders nervous at the thought. However, in it she goes on about how we ascribe to ourselves a self-fulfilling paralysis derived from our own conception that we’re only capable of a fixed set of possibilities. Debbie may have been addressing a graduating class, but I’m picturing an entire corporate world. The workforce that comes in day in and day out, imagines only one fixed set of possibilities for those days. They’re paralyzed within the “OK Plateau” and yet unable to imagine anything beyond it.
Moving past the plateau to imagine new possibilities comes with its inevitable share of mistakes. Foer would argue in favor of that, citing that mistakes (as we all tell our children) is the only way to learn a new skill. Foer writes, “Something experts in all fields tend to do when they’re practicing is to operate outside of their comfort zone and study themselves failing. The best figure skaters in the world spend more of their practice time practicing jumps that they don’t land than lesser figure skaters do. The same is true of musicians. When most musicians sit down to practice, they play the parts of pieces that they’re good at. Of course they do: it’s fun to succeed. But expert musicians tend to focus on the parts that are hard, the parts they haven’t yet mastered. The way to get better at a skill is to force yourself to practice just beyond your limits.” Applying this theory to business, I’d add that we fully know and respect the mantra “how will you know if you don’t try” but are too afraid of risk (and not eager enough for success) to apply this to the business world let alone give our workforce the same opportunity to essentially play and experiment with new possibilities.
We can already see how terms like ‘reflective failure’ and ‘mistake-making’ would make any company feel uncomfortable. Yet herein lies the difference between a work-force driver (i.e. a supervisor) and a leader. The leader isn’t focused on neat excel-based data; a leader is interested in the potential of his or her team.
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