Seeing The Possible Begins With Seeing The Obvious – Here’s How To Grasp Both

Seeing The Possible Begins With Seeing The Obvious – Here’s How To Grasp Both

Business October 15, 2019 / By Larry Robertson
Seeing The Possible Begins With Seeing The Obvious – Here’s How To Grasp Both

Knowledge is important, and habit is powerful. Where you apply both may just be the most important of all.

You might not think that a story from a livestock behavior course (and yes, there is such a thing) would have something to teach us about why we so often fail to see what’s right in front of us, but it does. More, it conveys a fundamental lesson about creativity, innovation, and how to tap both more often and more successfully. The story comes from renowned professor of animal science Temple Grandin. If you don’t know Grandin, maybe you should. In addition to being exceptional in her field, she’s the author of several books that share her experience with autism and how it has taught her that there are many ways to see the world, a fact she works to keep herself and others tuned into. The story goes like this…

Grandin’s course seeks to do more than teach students about livestock behavior. In it, her greater goal is to get her students out of their well-worn perceptions and into a new mindset. Why? Well among other reasons, it’s hard to understand and care for a cow, for example, if you insist on thinking only like a human and never see things from the alternate perspective of the cow. So one of the first things Grandin does is to show her class pictures of the kinds of visual distractions that stress out cows and make them harder to care for. Even something as seemingly inconsequential as a swinging chain on a corral gate can throw a cow off. From basics in the classroom, Grandin quickly puts the lessons into play by putting her students in a zone that’s often uncomfortable for any of us – the real world.   

“The following week we have a lab where we handle cattle in a chute that is used for veterinarian work,” Grandin says, a chute in which she deliberately leaves a swinging chain. What happens next is fascinating and telling: time and again, 80% of the students fail to notice the chain… even when they’d been taught the importance of looking for it just days before. How is it we miss the obvious, even when the obvious is important and we’ve told to be on the lookout for it? Grandin has a remarkably simple yet powerful way of summing up the lesson – "(We) see the thing (we’ve) been told to look for, but (we) don’t own it." 

Maybe cows are too far out from your daily reality for this story to sink in. Consider then a parallel tale or two a bit closer to your world, like a common car buying experience, for example. You determine you need a new car, and you decide you want it to be unique. You choose the Volkswagen Beatle. But just as soon as you do, suddenly you see Bugs everywhere, and that car you thought would make you look so distinct, starts to lose its luster in ubiquity. It’s similar to the experience you have when starting a family. Before you make that choice, when you are childless, you’re more attuned to happy hour signs and chic new restaurants to try, completely unaware of all the pregnancies and strollers around you. Then you’re expecting and almost overnight it’s as though a mass detention of bulging bellied women and toddlers was set free on the streets. As Grandin notes, it’s hard to see what you don’t ‘own.’  

The question is, what can we do about it? 

The answer is simple: if you don’t want to find yourself constrained by your well-worn perceptions and practices and missing out on the possibilities (and threats) around you, you’ve got to be awake and aware, constantly evolving not just how you see the world, but perpetually updating how what you see connects to what you seek and therefore, what you actively take ownership of. 

To make that happen, you need to do the following: tune into what you know; shift your thinking habits: and break free from the artificial box we all unknowingly build around ourselves. Here’s how…

Three Ways To See And Own The Possible

1. Ask The 5 Layers of Why. 

Sometimes what you think you know is less than what you actually know. As humans, we are built to solve. Trouble is, when we come up with a good fix we also tend to lock into that solution and turn down or even turn off our explorer-solver mode. Japanese inventor and founder of Toyota Industries Sakichi Toyoda was keenly aware of this, and he didn’t want his innovative company to become less creative as a result of it. So he developed a thinking tool he called the 5 Whys. 

The technique serves two functions. The first is to remind us that we must always stay in the mode of asking why, not because we expect or even want to always be producing better answers, but instead because new information is always coming in – sometimes changing our assumptions, other times giving us new ideas – and our job is to remain awake and aware to it. But Toyoda realized that one ‘why’ wasn’t enough to truly see possibilities (or problems). Whatever the answer to the first question of why, Toyoda encouraged his team to keep going, to keep asking another layer of why to whatever answer came forth from the previous why. By testing and tweaking this technique, he discovered that by the fifth later of why we tend to get to the root – to the thing that’s right in front of us – the real issue or opportunity, within which we find both the value and the way forward.  

2. Get Into The 5 Habits Of The Mind. 

Knowledge is good, but habit is more powerful still. The 5 Habits of the Mind, a technique developed by education reformer Deborah Meier, combines both insights. The 5 Habits are five questions: 1) How do we know what we know? 2) Is there a pattern? 3) What if …? 4) Is there another way of looking at it? And, importantly, 5) Who cares? What Meier has discovered is that when these questions become your thinking habits, in other words, when they are part of your everyday and every deed, even in small ways, they keep you attuned to the dynamic nature of knowledge itself, allowing you to constantly update your thinking and more, your sense of what’s possible. 

You can learn more about the 5 Habits here, but the gist is this: 1) If you understand not just what you know, but how you know it, you are likely to stay closer to the truest version of what lies in front of you. 2 and 3) If you follow patterns and not just hunches, odds are you’ll end up in more fertile ground for exploring the ‘what if’ at the root of all innovations. 4) Being willing to not fall in love with your ideas, enough to always examine if there’s ‘another way of looking at it,’ lowers the odds of boxing yourself into one dimension. And 5) always assessing value through the lens of who sees that value and more, cares about it, is essential to turning your ideas into reality. 

3. Habitually Step Into The Adjacent Possible. 

Knowledge is important, and habit is powerful. Where you apply both may just be the most important of all. When it comes to creativity and innovation, the best place to apply these tools and habit is at your edges, that invisible border around you and what you know and do in this moment, beyond which lies possibility. The thing is, possibility lies ‘just’ beyond your edges, not a million miles away. And simply by putting your toe over the line into the new and unknown is enough to allow you not only to see new things, but to see in a new way when you come back into your known zone. Stu Kaufmann, who coined the phrase ‘the adjacent possible,’ points out this additional reward of coming to your edges and stepping over – when you do, you actually expand the possible beyond what previously lay on one side or the other of your known zone. In Grandin’s world, it’s like noticing more than the swinging chain and the nervous cow, and beginning to see how to remove the chains around your own way of thinking and doing.

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