“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”
– Wayne Dyer

Many of us may be familiar with the parable of The Elephant. In the story four people are blindfolded and lead into a room with an elephant. When they come out they are asked to report on what they found.  One said it felt like the trunk of the tree, another said it felt like an enormous leaf, the third said it felt like a solid wall and the last one said it felt more like a big snake. 

All were relating accurately their experience of the same thing (the elephant), from different perspectives, because they were touching different parts of the elephant.

Of course, the moral of this story is that perspective is everything.  If this is the case, how can we as staff and board members look past our own limited perspectives to find the best solutions to solve big hairy problems, or lead our organizations to the next level, or resolve conflict that might be getting in the way of our success?

Three Ways to Shift Perspective

This article will focus on three ways that you can shift your organization’s perspective to uncover fresh insights and find new solutions to difficult problems.

  • Breaking The Frame will widen your options and allow for exploration of ideas previously unseen.
  • Stimulating Quick Conflict can prevent stale thinking and improve the quality of strategic thinking without sacrificing significant time.
  • Forcing Alternative Paths and Multi-Tracking puts several alternatives in play at once allowing the organization to see what works and what doesn’t quickly before over-investing.

Breaking The Frame

As Jonathon Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind,  “We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided.”   He is referring to morality in politics, but the same is true for changing our perspectives.  Once we get an idea for how we think a problem should be solved we have a difficult time being open to other solutions.

A powerful and simple lever for breaking the frame is talking to people who aren’t in the room, in your organization, or in your network.   Ask someone in a very different field or area of expertise how they might solve your problem.  These people are likely to ask good questions about the nature of your situation and can breathe new life in to your thinking.

Another simple idea is asking someone outside of your organization who might have encountered a similar problem.  We all like to think our problems are unique but this is rarely the case, almost always someone has dealt with your exact situation before or at least something very similar.  Use your network and find them.

Stimulate Quick Conflict

In non-profits we can be woefully afraid of conflict, but conflict can be a fast track way to finding new perspectives. Disagreement wakes us up, activates our thinking and makes us present to the task at hand.  In a culture where it is safe to disagree, conflict creates the opportunity for all parties to have a say in solving problems.

But how can we quickly give voice to different perspectives with groups who are not naturally prone to disagreeing?  This can be done through an exercise such as Edward De Bono’s 6 Hats. In this exercise, each person or group is asked to look at the problem or idea wearing a different hat.  Each hat represents a different perspective.

White Hat
Focus your thoughts on information – the facts and figures. What info is available? How do we get it?
Red Hat
Unlimited use of feelings, intuition and emotions, which don’t have to be justified.
Black Hat
Warning! Difficulties, dangers and problems. What can go wrong? And does this comply with our knowledge and experience?
Yellow Hat
Focus the thinking on benefits, values and attainability. What are the positives?
Green Hat
Conscious creative effort – generating ideas and looking for alternatives. Solving problems.
Blue Hat
Managing of the thinking itself. Defining the topic, giving the summaries, making decisions and drawing conclusions

Divide people into groups of six and randomly assign each person a different color hat. Once the hats have been assigned, share the definitions of the different perspectives each hat represents.

Give the group the topic or problem that you want them to think about and ask them to adopt the position corresponding to the color they have picked up. The participants will then debate on the topic but have to stick to the role for which they have been assigned. After 10 minutes make the participants change the hats. Alternatively, at this point you can have a brief summary session of the discussion before having them change hats.

NOTE! The Blue hat represents Process, and the person wearing this hat will function as the conductor of the conversation. Their job is to make sure all aspects are covered and that the conversation keeps moving forward.

Force Alternative Paths

As thoughtful, consensus-based entities; non-profits can find themselves repeatedly reviewing the same decision.  In one non-profit the idea of expanding programming to an adjacent city came up every year at the annual board retreat.  The idea was debated vigorously each year, left undecided and reintroduced again a year later or when a new staff member or board member got reenergized by the idea.  Finally, the E.D. and the Board President decided to change the question and ask instead what the organization would do if expanding to an adjacent city were NOT an option, what were the three things they would do instead.   This forced them to explore multiple alternative paths.

In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath refer to this as multi-tracking. Multi-tracking is about considering multiple alternatives at the same time. In multi-tracking you invest in several options simultaneously, quickly giving the organization a sense of the viability and trade-offs of each option.  This allows bad ideas to be tossed out quickly before there is an over-investment.

Forcing alternative paths and multi-tracking allowed the organization to explore ideas around cross-state expansion and adjacent city partnerships, things they hadn’t considered before.   Within a year, they had partnered with an organization on the other side of the state.

All of these strategies are designed to stimulate fresh thinking and bring creative energy into problem-solving.  Next time you and your organization find yourselves in dealing with a problem that seems unsolvable, consider giving one of these frameworks a try and let us know what happens.