Is It Plugged In?

The toaster won’t turn on. You fiddle with it for a minute or two. You start locally. But, when that doesn’t work, you think bigger. You move from content to context. First, you check if it’s plugged in. Then you go further out, “Hmmm, maybe the circuit is blown.”

You do this all the time. You move—so fast usually that you don’t think about it—from content to context. Whatever the toaster of the moment is, you ask yourself “Is there a larger problem that this is only a symptom of?” The problem is that we rarely do this when it matters most. Because the more emotion is involved, the more fixated we get on what’s right in front of us. This is exactly how your problems remain: you let yourself be distracted by mere symptoms. Keep reading and this can change for you.

So you check the circuit, and it’s not flipped. You keep going. You realize there’s no power in your house at all! You’re another ring out into context. Wait, is it just your house? There’s another ring outward. You walk outside and find neighbors who don’t have power either. And on and on (and hopefully the power company is on their way).

These days, many are talking about how to improve company culture. If you want to improve company culture, you must think contextually. The culture isn’t the real problem, it’s a symptom. Where is the culture, anyway? Can you touch it, see it? No? Then how can you improve company culture? You can’t do anything about it directly because technically speaking it doesn’t exist.

A culture is the aggregated blend of everyone’s values in the company, weighted toward those at the top of the org chart. While employee-of-the-month programs, company picnics, and bonus incentives may appear to temporarily alter the expression of those values, they do not produce long-lasting change because they have nothing to do with culture at the core. These things help somewhat, just like polishing the chrome on your broken toaster, giving it new rubber feet, emptying its crumb tray, etc. This is going smaller at the surface rather than going deeper to the root problem.

When most managers try to improve company culture, they polish a broken toaster when the power is out. Imagine spending all day fiddling with the toaster. Then, as the sun sets, you reach for the light switch to discover there’s no power at all. It’s laughable, right? But we all do this. We get stuck in the content of a problem and make things far more difficult (and time-consuming) than they need to be. We get fixated.

Improve Company Culture Through Holistic Thinking

Now, think about how to improve company culture—or solving any big issue in your life. Where are you are fiddling with the toaster when the problem is that the power line is down? If you go inside for a moment, you’ll feel how the act of asking that question moves you to a different—and more creative—state of mind. That space—when your mind and heart is open to possibilities—is where all great problem-solving and innovation happens.

Unfortunately, this open place is the opposite of what we’re taught in school. The model that governs our education system is science, where the focus is on “drilling down,” breaking things into their parts to understand them better. The idea that a whole can be understood by the sum of its parts one of the fundamental premises of science. It’s a philosophical orientation called reductionism. There’s nothing wrong with reductionist thinking; it’s an incredibly powerful tool in the human problem-solving arsenal. It’s the source of countless amazing accomplishments in our world—especially in the domains of medicine, chemistry, engineering, and technology.

The problem with drilling down is when it has no competition—when it’s not challenged by another method. And this other method is one of root problem-solving, and the spaces and connections that only it can see. In this other world, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the realm of what’s called holistic thinking. This school of thought says that when you break something down into its parts, while you can gain incredible knowledge about it, you lose something critical about its essence. In the end, you end up with a restricted view of how those elements work with each other. And, as a result, your perspective and your problem-solving ability suffer.

Here’s the takeaway: Both ways of thinking are important to solve problems. But it’s the contextual thinking side of life that’s vastly under-developed in most of us, and almost entirely ignored in business. It’s why we tend to spend too long fiddling with the toaster—or the next great marketing and sales tactic—instead of turning our attention to the values and limiting beliefs below the surface. What are the core limiting beliefs that create your company’s culture? If you can’t immediately answer this, you have not only a culture problem, you have one you can’t solve (unless you get help).

Nobody will ever force you to make the pivot from content to context. Our world gives us endless opportunities to keep working on the toaster. What would you find if you stepped outside?

Want to learn more about holistic thinking and root problem-solving? It’s a skill you develop when you become a Clear and Open Member through live training and online courses. Are you at the top of an org chart and want to know the answer to the bold question above? I can help you find it in less than an hour. It’s not hard when you know how to leave the toaster behind. Teaching you that, though, will take a bit longer. The only thing you have to lose are ideas that were never true.

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