Don’t let your paradigm shift put your thinking back in the box

As a former consultant and client in a business setting, I get a kick out of the use of catch phrases that our bandied about within corporate walls to convey larger meaning. These expressions are over-used to the point of “Dilbert-like” status. Consider the following examples:

We need a “paradigm shift” or to “change our paradigm” – these tickle me as they allow the user to use a fancier word than model or template. It is an elegant way to say what you are doing is not working too well.

The most overused expression is we need to “think outside of the box” – this one conveys we have boxed in our thinking with our own processes, bureaucracy and cultures and don’t know what’s going on outside in the real world. I have also heard to “look beyond the nine dots” but to this day I do not know what that means and I am pretty sure the speaker does not either.

When all else fails, “let’s throw things against the wall and see what sticks”- this is a nice way to say, let’s just try some things and see what might work. It is also notes that no one has a clear cut idea of what to do.

Of course, change becomes easier when we have a “burning platform” – this phrase has great symbolism. When you are having some success, change is difficult, as some feel it is not needed. The burning platform means we better change as our ship is on fire.

The best business expressions, though, come from military service where their version of corporate headquarters is rife with opportunity. The most popular expression is SNAFU, which has actually made it to Miriam-Webster and Wikipedia. Even the most religious of people do not need help in spelling out the meaning of SNAFU. Trailing its more popular brethren, FUBAR has its own advocates. In the ranking of being screwed up, a FUBAR is worse than a SNAFU, with the exception a SNAFU is more normative. For the less familiar the BAR part is short for “beyond all recognition.”

Yet, my old friend Mike, who served in the Navy and was in the Control department of a company I used to work with, was my favorite with expressions. My favorite of his was “open the kimonos” meaning we should share information and not withhold any data. For the more worldly readers, the term is derived from how prostitutes would merchandise themselves to sailors on shore leave in an Asian port city.

He was also prone to describing how hard it was to change our bureaucratic organization saying it is like “turning a battleship in a harbor” which should not be tried due to its poor chance for success. He also had his own version of throw stuff against the wall, when he would say “we should just through the old bones and see what turns up.” This could refer to bones being dice or it might refer to a witch doctor or medicine man who would throw bones to read his own version of the tea leaves.

While these sayings range from being fun to the trite, they mask how hard it is to change and be forthcoming. If change were easy, more people would do so as circumstances present themselves. You need good information, but you don’t need every piece of information. The company Mike and I worked for wanted more information to decide something and often missed the market opportunity. Yet, the information should be a fair and honest assessment of the issue and potential resolution.

Also, the people closest to the customer or activity often have the better or good solutions, so their input should be solicited and considered. The only caveat to this is if someone’s job depends on the continuation of an old process. So, here is where some balance of outside thinking would be helpful, as the person may be reluctant to change.

Let me close with the phrases that convey trying things and keeping what works. Companies need to do this more than they do either in a pilot setting or small market or department. In the book “Built to Last” which is about extremely successful companies who dwarfed the success of their best competitors over time, a key tenet of these companies was trying stuff and keeping what works. In fact, a couple of the companies failed at their first product, but kept going.

So, it is more than OK to throw the old bones or throw stuff against a wall to see what sticks. But, at least be colorful with your expression when you do. Let me know some of your more memorable sayings overheard in your jobs.

8 thoughts on “Don’t let your paradigm shift put your thinking back in the box

  1. “Such trite sayings were the hobgoblin of small minds.” The one really flying around today, and one that I find as being overused and an excuse for mediocrity and lack of thinking is: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.” Like yours, I think I could write an entire column on why this is wrong…

    I think we need to stick the pin in all those who hide their limited creativity and problem solving ability behind such trite sayings. Well done.

    • Barney, the irony is the people who tend to say that quote do the same thing again and again. We had a new CEO do something that failed earlier and it crashed a burned a second time. Thanks for adding a good one, BTG

  2. Still chuckling over a twist from your post. I’m just leaving to go visit in a nursing home. “Let’s throw the old bones and see what turns up” is definitely something we wouldn’t want to say there!

  3. The phrase “look beyond the nine dots” is another way of saying “think outside the box”. The Nine Dot Exercise asks people to make three rows of three dots in a square on a piece of paper. Then they are asked to draw four straight lines that connects all nine dots without lifting the pen or retracing a line. Typically the presenter uses something similar to an arrow with the points coming out to the side as the “solution” and points out that to get that you had to go “outside the box” and think “creatively”. There are actually other solutions than the arrow, it is just the one I have seen the most in the demonstrations.

    The actual nine dot puzzle is older than the saying “think outside the box” and began as an intellectual challenge. Here is a wikipedia article for more information:

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