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Sometimes You Should Look For A Zebra- and Maybe Gamers Will Cure Our Ills!

September 20, 2011 · 13 comments

in Life, Work

The other day, I was reading a book, and it referenced the phrase “If you hear hoof beats, look for horses and not zebras”.  I thought about it, and the phrase does make sense.  Generally, the simplest and most obvious answer is quite often the correct one. However, this same thinking can also limit potential, and hold people and ideas back.

Does Your Boss Prefer Horses?

Think about it, how many times have you been sitting in a meeting where the purpose was to ‘brainstorm’?  Eventually, the ideas get narrowed down, and countless ideas get shot down because the most powerful person in the room doesn’t see the potential.  That person has their own way of doing things and they don’t want to necessarily do what it takes to try something brand new.  In those instances, people feel deflated, and are then reluctant to offer up suggestions in the future.  In other words, a horse might do just fine, but a zebra might actually make a difference!

A Volleyball Ref That Was So Lazy He Could Only See A Horse

An even simpler example happened this past weekend at my daughter’s volleyball tournament.   Our team was not setting the world on fire that day, but they were close to winning a game late in the day.  If they won this game, they could advance further in the tournament.  If they lost, they would go home.  During that game, the score was obviously wrong, and either our coachor a parent pointed the inaccuracy of the score out to the referee.   Instead of actually looking into it, the ref just turned around to the parent and said “oh, the scorekeeper has been doing a great job all day, I am sure the score is right” and that was it.  Fortunately, we still won the game, but again, the ref was just basing his decision on what he had seen previously and not really thinking that the opposite was actually possible. In the case of the volleyball game, history doesn’t always predict the future, and sometimes people need to dig a little deeper to come up with the right answer.  However, that is not a popular decision with the lazy folk!

The University of Washington Invites Zebras To Help With Research (Not Literal Zebras…)

On the flip side, there is a very interesting story about how the University of Washington thought totally out of the box, and got remarkable results. According to an article on Fox News, scientists have been trying to “decipher the structure of a retrovirus protein” for over ten years, with no success.  So, researchers at the University of Washington decided to take a novel approach at understanding this protein.  They made a game out of it!

Three Weeks of Fun with Foldit!

The game that was played was created by software that was written at the University of Washington called Foldit.  What Foldit does is takes scientific problems and turns them into competitive computer games.  In this case, the challenge to the gamers was to create various three-dimensional models of the retrovirus protein.  The experiment was a complete success and according to the article, “Within days, the gamers generated models good enough for the researchers to refine  into an accurate portrayal of the enzyme’s structure. What’s more, the  scientists identified parts of the molecule that are likely targets for drugs to  block the enzyme.” Who would have thought gaming could possibly lead to the design of antiretroviral drugs, including anti-HIV drugs?  (Who besides the trailblazers at the University of Washington that is…)  It was the perfect combination of science and the human mind that made the modeling possible.  The computer couldn’t seem to do it alone, and the human mind wasn’t able to do it alone either.

You Don’t Have To Understand Science To Understand The Point…

I cannot even pretend that I can intelligently speak about retroviruses and creating three dimensional designs of such things.  However, what I can talk about is this: Whereas quite often, the simple answer is the easiest answer, it isn’t always the correct or best answer.  If something doesn’t make sense, don’t continue to pound your head on the desk staring at the obvious.  Look for that zebra and consider it might be lurking outside the room.  Ask for help, and think outside of the box.  Thinking ‘differently’ is part of what makes America great.  We don’t just always refine what already exists, we also are innovative enough to try entirely new things.  Sure, there might be failure, but there might also be success.  Remember this not just when considering your own ideas, but when listening to other people’s ideas too.

Have you ever had a great idea at work that was shot down?   Have you ever said ‘no’ to something that ended up actually being a really good idea?

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

The Biz of Life September 20, 2011 at 8:04 am

I lot of stupid ideas come from zebras, but occasionally something brilliant emerges which revolutionizes an industry or dramatically improves processes at work. That’s why you need zebras around, even if they can be nuisances at times.


Kris September 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm

But you also need to have people around that will listen to the zebra, otherwise, he might as well be a horse…


retirebyforty September 20, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I love the foldit idea. I was just thinking that there must be a way to harness gamers’ intuition and addition to games. I played Angry Bird on Google+ and was stuck for a few hours. 🙂 Hopefully this will lead to more break through in all area.


Kris September 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I have not played angry birds yet, but I have a son or two that sure likes it and they drain my phone playing it. Wouldn’t it be great if more games could solve the world??


Squirrelers September 20, 2011 at 11:15 pm

I’ve had both situations occur – new/innovative ideas of mine getting shot down, then times when I’ve ignored what turned out to be a novel idea.

There’s a time and place for the zebras. Sometimes we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, and do have time constraints. In that case, sticking to what has worked can be efficient, timely, and less costly in terms of time and money. The zebras can come up with ideas to innovate at the silliest times.

However…there are definitely times when the zebras have great ideas that are just waiting to be heard and implemented.

Overall, I think it’s best to balance the two, but lean toward being a zebra. Progress is made this way, and change is constant, so the zebra is more able to adapt.

I’m taking this way too seriously:) You probably get what I’m saying!


Barb Friedberg September 20, 2011 at 11:44 pm

I’m more apt to go to the complex idea and need to look for the expedient/horse idea. I remember refs like your kids from my daughters sports playing days!! Way too much drama.


Jade September 21, 2011 at 5:46 am

Interesting post, thank you.


Evan September 21, 2011 at 12:24 pm

I hadn’t heard of this program. It is amazing what happens when people take a different look at problems.

At my current place of employment no idea is really shut down – it is a VERY interesting place to work and we are dealing with complex estate problems daily so creativity is NECESSARY


funancials September 21, 2011 at 12:32 pm

My favorite quote is “the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.” If the horse isn’t working, then I’m all for the zebra, the donkey, or even the unicorn.


Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager September 21, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Love the idea of turning world problems into games so more people can be involved and contribute. You never know where your zebra might come from.


Kris September 22, 2011 at 11:16 am

It is such a great idea. People love the challenge of a video game, and I am sure the brain operates in a unique way when processing data in that manner.

I wonder if anyone in the room laughed and scoffed when this idea was proposed?


First Gen American September 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

I had a great mad scientist mentor that told me i could learn to be innovative and creative.. I’m mainly a horse person, but you can force yourself to think about zebras. I always preface when I’m brainstorming that I’ll come up with 10 dumb ideas before 1 brilliant one. Creativity comes from stretching yourself out of the norm.


Kris September 23, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Sandy, a 10 to 1 ratio of ‘dumb’ to ‘brilliant’ idea is pretty darn good in my opinion. Many people go their whole lives without one brilliant idea! (And they are the first ones to shoot down someone else’s great idea.)


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