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Did Cookie Monster Mislead Us?

What? Cookie Monster mislead us? That’s like questioning mom, apple pie and the 4th of July!

But he did. If you don’t believe me, just watch this very short (one-minute) video clip <>.

Where’s the fib? In his implication that there’s only one right answer to the question.

From a very early age we’˜re taught by authority figures to think in rigid ways. In particular, we’re taught that there is one, and ONLY one, right answer to every problem or question. As evidenced by the video clip, even Cookie Monster gets in on the act. And he’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Did you take the SAT or ACT exams in high school? Or maybe the LSATs on the way to law school? Remember how many of the multiple-choice questions had several likely answers? I can remember constantly fighting the urge to fill in more than one bubble.

If I had, not only would I have gotten the question wrong, they would probably have put me in the “special” class. That’s how strong our bias is for seeking THE right answer. And it gets baked into our impressionable brains from the time we start watching Cookie Monster until the time we can no longer eat cookies without dentures.

Here’s the problem: that’s not the way the world works! Especially in business.

Almost all problems have multiple solutions. Some are better, easier, cheaper, more feasible, etc. than others. But very rarely do we encounter situations where only one option is the only right one.

Our job as leaders isn’t to find THE right answer. It’s to identify as many possible answers as we can and choose the best one or combination of ones, meaning the solution that most supports reaching our desired destination.

Why is this flexible approach to problem solving and decision making so important?

Because in today’s chaotic markets the development of strategic agility — which I define as the ability to move fast with flexibility and focus — needs to become management’s #1 strategic priority. When entire markets can change overnight, organizations need to respond quickly without losing focus on their vision of winning.

This kind of agility sometimes requires adjusting our definitions of what winning looks like. But far too often companies react to change in panic mode and respond in ways that don’t necessarily support reaching their desired destinations.

Developing strategic agility starts with rearranging how we think about the world. First we have to let go of the notion that we need to constantly find THE right answer. Then we need to make a habit of considering multiple possibilities, especially when we know we have the right answer.

This is no easy task for brains that have received lifelong training in right-answer finding, but it can be done. The following techniques will help to shake up your brain and get it used to considering new possibilities on a regular basis:

  • Ask a lot of “What if…?” questions. For example, “What if our ‘right’ answer is wrong? Is there another way we should be looking at this?”
  • Consider second best. Ask, “If we had to choose the second-best answer to this question, what would we look at?”
  • Put on different stakeholder hats. “If our customers were considering this question, how would they answer it? Our employees? Our vendors? Someone outside our industry?”
  • Solicit alternative viewpoints. “It sounds like we’re all in agreement on the solution here. I’m wondering if anyone sees it differently.”
  • Have people come up with the worst possible solution to a problem. Have fun with it.
  • Trade problems. If marketing is struggling to resolve an issue, let purchasing take a stab at solving it.
  • Challenge your assumptions. Ask, “What underlying attitudes and beliefs are causing us to see this as the best or only solution?”
  • Have a contest to see who can come up with the most answers or solutions. Give a fun prize to the winner.
  • Don’t settle for the first good answer. Good often gets in the way of great.

Perhaps most important, learn to look at things differently. One of the most successful products of the past decade, the iPod, was invented by putting together readily available, off-the-shelf components. No new intellectual property. No technological breakthroughs. Just looking at what already existed and putting the pieces together in different ways.

Cookie Monster meant well and so did all of your teachers who graded you on getting the “right” answer along the way, but the lesson they taught does not serve us well in today’s business world. Stop looking for THE right answer and who knows what you might come up with!

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