We tend to label people or things and assign them into “boxes” – by gender, race, political persuasion, nationality, you name it. And, even though we may be aware that these are gross generalizations, it can develop into a habit of mind with limiting, negative side effects.
Here’s the “positive” side of labeling and putting things in “boxes:” it’s efficient. But thats about it. Learning how to drink a cup of water was once a complex series of actions we had to learn: look at the glass, reach your arm toward it, grasp with your fingers, and then raise it to your lips . . . without spilling it. We wouldn’t want to relearn that every time we got thirsty! Similarly, to name something “hot” is a convenient way for us to communicate that there is inherent danger regarding an object and to handle it carefully. It's a short cut and it works. We all get that.
However, these shortcuts, while efficient, can foster an unsophistication of mind that limits our ability to address more complex issues in life. For instance, think how we label people as “conservative” or “liberal.” This one statement paints a wide variety of individuals with an incredibly blunt brush, collapsing multiple attributes into one “box.” The shortcut has done just that: cut things short and, in effect, cuts them down to a radically crude approximation. With one word, with one label, we can lump an entire swath of humanity into “us” or “them” thinking – a remarkably hijacking of, what we deem to be, a sophisticated and sentient being.
Here, I'll invoke the metaphor of “distillation” to expand thinking and open new solution paths. Distillation is the process of separating components from a substance. Below is an image of distilling crude oil into various petroleum products at different boiling temperatures.
What I've described thus far is a sort of reverse distillation: a “collapsing” our thinking into boxes where we reduce distinct components into a lowest denominator whole. It would be like pouring all these distilled petroleum products back into the original tank - a crude mixture. We do this all the time! The biggest problem is we do so largely unknowingly and, therefore, remove access to other solutions.
An example, a large corporate client of mine was trying to upgrade a particular initiative that had been around for decades. They couldn’t. They were stuck envisioning their options within the collapsed structure of the current initiative. It’s akin to what Henry Ford once (supposedly) said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would answer ‘A faster horse.’” So, I worked with the client and their team to break down the problem into its component parts and challenged each on its own. That opened up new doors and were able to develop a radically transformed solution that generated outsized results.
But this is not something limited to large organizations: we’ve seen this conundrum ourselves: on any given weekend we may have infinite choices but we get stuck by competing voices. We could go for a drive, go wine tasting, get some exercise, go to a museum, etc. But after negotiating with the different aspects of ourselves, we come down to very few novel choices and usually revert to whatever is habitual for us: "Let’s just stay home and watch sports." Richard Schwarz, in his book, No Bad Parts, explains how “we” are not one monolithic entity: we each have different “parts” within us. Understanding that, enables us to listen to each of our parts, and then choose powerfully rather than give up trying to mitigate the conflicts within.
This idea that “you” are comprised of multiple “you’s” could be a transformative realization on its own. But now think of aligning multiple people in a group setting. Another client of mine had a team that couldn’t agree on priorities: they spent more time working against each other (surreptitiously) than agreeing on a common path forward. Everyone had good and valid ideas but in the end the team needed to get on the same page. Together, we followed two fundamental steps in the process: the first of course was to distill the various ideas onto the whiteboard. Then, we created a common context to “refine” them. We did this based on two factors: the impact the idea would have on what they were trying to achieve and the level of difficulty involved to make it happen. Using a 2x2 framework and some tricks of the trade, we were able to identify the ideas that were both high impact and relatively easy to execute. Everyone became aligned and we were able to create a unified action plan forward.
The bottom line is this: when you have a challenge before you, see if you can distill out the factors that you have bundled into some sort of box: get the jumbled thinking out of your head and onto paper where you can see it in the light of day. Then you have a chance in hell of breaking out of fixed thinking. Hopefully you come up with multiple potential solutions and then your only “problem” is choosing which one! If it’s not immediately obvious then you can apply any number of decision frameworks available to determine the right solution for you.
Watch your thinking and notice where you have made broad assumptions about a person or group. Distill those assumptions into component parts and ask if those assumptions really apply to all of them. The overwhelming chances are they won't!
I work with leaders and teams to radically improve thinking, performance and outcomes. Reach out to me and let's discuss your challenge: firstname.lastname@example.org