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?