Trapped by our own Minds
I’ve been around the block when it comes to professional speaking. I’ve seen the tricks of the trade–opening with a joke, dramatic pauses, giving people the “if you only take ONE thing from this talk…” line. But I will say that someone introduced a new one at the Mix Mashup that I definitely plan on using in my own speaking some day. He had a very simple question that he asked us to answer out loud:
What color is a yield sign?
Now, how many of you said “yellow”? If my readership is anything like the live audience, you’re all nodding your heads at the screen right now.
But here’s the interesting pat: this is what a yield sign looks like.
Not seeing a whole lot of yellow are you? So why is that? How could so many of us get that wrong? Well, part of it is because the idea of “yield” connects to “caution,” and caution (when driving anyway) is connected to the color yellow, both in terms of a yellow light on a traffic signal and the ubiquitous yellow diamond-shaped road signs that let us know of lanes ending, merging, school crossings, etc. Oh, and one thing the speaker didn’t mention: for a long time yield signs WERE yellow–it’s only over the last 20 years that they have been red and white.
So what does this have to do with leadership and management innovation? It is a reminder of how much we live our lives within limits that are ascribed unintentionally by our own minds. We keep ideas in our head that instantly get brought to the surface when we need to solve a problem or answer a question. The ideas and concepts are disparate, sometimes disconnected or irrelevant to each other, and sometimes they are even proven wrong by evidence, yet we still like to rely on these bits of “data” when we draw our conclusions.
It’s important to be aware of this as you work in your organization. I think so much of what is considered standard or even “best” practice in management today is probably about as on target as a yellow yield sign. There is a little bit of logic, and a little bit of experience–maybe from 20 years ago or more–that says we should do once-annual performance reviews, using a paper form, that are tied to compensation, but in reality…it’s a horrible idea and we know it. Performance is rarely improved during a once-annual process, and tying individual compensation to very complex jobs in a knowledge economy has been shown (see Dan Pink’s Drive) to be a big mistake. But we make these connections in our head, plus it’s “always been done that way,” so we just keep heading down the path.
We need to liberate ourselves from our own minds. We need to allow more direct data into our conversations and we need to develop the discipline to challenge our own assumptions and conclusions about what works and what is. We need to be forgiving, both of ourselves and others, when we get things wrong. We need to try some things that don’t feel right at first. If we recognize the very real limitations of our own brains, we’ll be positioning ourselves better for success.