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Challenges in Business: Meet one of the biggest challenges in business and tackle the sacred cows of accepted practice

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There are things we are not allowed to think about. This can be because if we challenge such items we seem to be advocating the opposite. 'Democracy' is an extremely inefficient concept, but any attempt to challenge it seems to be advocating 'lack of democracy', which means 'tyranny'.

In self-organising systems things bed down in local equilibria. Any shift from such equilibria is an inferior position, and we are forced back to the equilibrium. On my web site I once asked for visitors to list the faults in democracy. There was a very good response, and a very large number of faults were listed.

If kids want to eat junk food all the time who is to tell them that they should not? Their parents, of course, who may know better. If people are told that they want democracy (because alternatives are so much worse), who is to tell them otherwise?

Of course, we can think about things the other way around. We can think about democracy, not in terms of putting a different system in place, but in terms of making democracy even more democratic than it is. If the fundamental principle of democracy is rule by the people, then we could enforce that rule even more fully.

What about permanent minorities who never get a chance to form a government? Should they really be totally ignored? What about the wishes of those who support the losing party in an election - should they have no say until the next election? Are those things not rather undemocratic? The usual argument is that there is a need to be practical and the need to have a 'strong' government in place.

Mostly there is a justified reluctance to fool around with something which works quite well. Anything new might be a great deal worse.

There are often unchallenged, and unchallengeable, central points in our thinking. We can challenge everything around them, but not the central points. This may be because such points are considered permanent truths, or because we realise that any change in such central points would be far too risky. We accept categories such as management, investors, workers, customers as essential truths. How else could it be done?

In advertising and marketing a particular product, we accept certain principles as central points. This may be because we know how extremely hard it is to change perceptions. Or it may be that we do not feel that such central points are open to change or improvement. Does toothpaste really have to make your teeth whiter? What about a double-ended tube with 'whitener' at one end and 'mouth hygiene' paste at the other end? Both would have more credibility than a mixed product.

To exchange a tried and accepted concept for something new is always going to be difficult, even if the new concept has been shown to be successful. But showing that the new concept can work is also always going to be difficult if it is a central point or a sacred cow that is being challenged. Obviously, there cannot be a trial period involving everyone. That would be disruptive and risky. Pilot projects are often seen to be pilot projects, and people do not behave in a totally normal fashion during experiments (the Hawthorne effect, etc).

Gradual change would be ideal. Small changes are introduced and watched. If they work, then the next small step is taken. This continues until the original concept has been totally changed. This is fine in theory, but there are few central concepts that could be changed in this gradual way.

Another approach is a defined trial period. It is made clear that the new way is going to be tried for a defined limited period. At the end of this period people are going to be allowed to choose whether to continue or to go back to the original concept.

A further approach is that of 'parallel options'. People are given the choice of using the usual method or opting for the new method. Both are available. If the new idea is going to work, then more people will gradually shift to the new option. For example, workers might choose the option of 'flexi-time'.

Reference is always a powerful tool for change. If you can show that another country has successfully used a new voting system (for example, the MMP system in New Zeraland), then the risk of switching is much less. But who is going to go first? Occasionally there is growing dissatisfaction and a growing pressure for change. If the new alternative is ready and waiting, then it might be possible to 'ride' on this increasing pressure for change.

In theory it should be possible to create a new idea that is so obviously better that everyone would immediately want to use it. This can happen with engineering, but rarely where people are concerned, because human reactions are much less predictable. It might be possible if the benefits of the new idea were well designed and very obvious.

Because it is so very difficult to bring about changes in central concepts, should we stop thinking about them? Should we indeed treat them as sacred cows which cannot be touched?

From a practical point of view, why spend time and effort thinking about things which cannot be changed? Should you not use that thinking effort elsewhere? If no one ever thinks about these matters, then certainly they are never going to change. But, maybe, it is always someone else's business, not yours, to do that thinking.

Thinking creatively about anything develops creative skill, so the effort is always worthwhile. In addition, once you start to challenge sacred cows, you find that there are many sacred cows in your own field of action which can really be challenged and changed.

The real value of thinking about anything is that the mind is enriched with new concepts and possibilities. Once thought these cannot be unthought. Such concepts may have an application in many other areas.

Too many people believe that the sole purpose of creative thinking is to turn up a specific usable idea. This is only one of the purposes. Another purpose is to enrich the mind with new possibilities, new connections, new concepts, new values and new perspectives.

Just as the existence of a town tends to dominate the network of roads in the neighbourhood, so a 'dominant' idea tends to organise values and mechanisms around itself. Part of the process of 'challenge' in lateral thinking is to identify such dominant ideas and then to challenge them. Is the purpose of a hotel really to provide 'beds'? Perhaps a hotel could function also to provide working and meeting places. This would go beyond conferences to provision of private working space. Is the purpose of a bank to provide only its own customers with access to financial services? What about a 'polybank centre' where access could be provided to customers of any bank?

What is being suggested here is the opposite of small step and small idea creativity. It is the willingness to think about and to challenge the really big ideas. Is it the purpose of education to teach and to select out the real high-fliers who then go on to university, etc? Maybe the purpose of education might be to educate the greater mass of non-high-fliers so that they could contribute more to society. This can be done - with spectacular results - through using the CoRT Thinking lessons (by people like Susan Mackie).

Sometimes when we set out to be creative we end up fiddling around the edges, focusing only on what seems to be doable. There is nothing wrong with this. But from time to time we should give thought to the rarely challenged central points and to the sacred cows.

It is not a matter of either/or. It is a matter of investing thinking time. People like to live a reasonable commuting time from their work. A lot of creativity can go into travel arrangements (car pools, rotas, etc.). But it can also make sense to consider moving the work to where the people like to live - or even working from home part of the time. Challenging central points, sacred cows and dominant ideas can re-set the whole picture.

Always remember this quote from George Bernard Shaw: 'Progress is due to the unreasonable person. The reasonable person adjusts to the world around. The unreasonable person seeks to change that world'. So there are the two sorts of creativity: the practical adjustment type and the revolutionary type. Invest thinking time in both.

As a service to readers of Thinking Managers I want to make them aware of some possibilities. There are now about 700 certified trainers in my work world-wide. Some of these do very little. Others earn a very substantial income indeed. There are now four programmes in use: Six Thinking Hats; Lateral Thinking (1); DATT (Direct Attention Thinking Tools); and a new facilitator programme.

For information contact Kathy Myers by fax USA 515 278 2245. More information is also given on my web site: http://www.

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