Thursday, November 05, 2009

Shift in Thinking

Not long ago I read that scientists had discovered bacteria, I think it was, that thrived in an environment of benzene. They were trying to determine what new possibilities existed with such a life form, one that could tolerate chemicals so extreme that our conception of how things could live was challenged. And that led to theorizing that our search for life on other planets was misdirected. Perhaps organisms in space did not need oxygen and water to survive and might do quite well with compounds like methane gas or ammonia maybe.

Our paradigms are difficult binds to break. We tend to conceptualize everything based on what we already know or assume we know. That's to be expected I guess. How else would we frame things, at least to begin with, than in terms we understand and with which we feel comfortable? But paradigms build a box we have to escape before we can move forward.

Everyone has paradigms and everyone is boxed in by them, apparently even scientists. Interesting things can happen when we free ourselves and go beyond the limits we set for ourselves and that can happen at all levels. New inventions are almost by definition a paradigm shift. So are new theories, like how life might be supported in other worlds. But it doesn't have to happen at high levels. We can shift paradigms anywhere and come up with something completely new.

When I worked in manufacturing, I was tasked to head a group that would address our attendance policy because our absentee rate was unbearable. The normal thing to do would have been to write people up faster for fewer incidences as part of taking a tougher stance. The group and I wanted to try a different approach. We set aside what we thought we knew about attendance and looked at it from two new viewpoints and only two viewpoints: 1) what do we really want to accomplish and 2) who do we want responsible for accomplishing it?

That was it, our only two goals. With them we realized we wanted to keep the machines running and we didn't want to bully people into running them. So we shifted everyone's paradigms by announcing a plan that anyone could miss any amount of time they wanted whenever they wanted in any increment they wanted. The caveat? If a person missed, it was their responsibility to find a qualified replacement to take their spot.

Gone were the complaints about not being able to take time to watch kids in a school play, likewise gone were supervisors running ragged trying to keep equipment producing and gone were people saying they were not getting enough hours. Gone. Everyone was happy, and productive, and we stopped chasing after attendance offenders like traffic cops and our supervisors went about managing the business. So did everyone else.

All because we were willing to shift our paradigms, throw them out really, and start fresh as if we didn't know what we thought we knew.