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When the Situation Looks Hopeless, Doubt Your Lack of Choice

Mar 3, 2008
Like Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise in the Star Trek television series, movies and books, you should spurn helplessness and believe that there is always a positive way out of a difficult or unexpected situation. Your job is to find and take that way out.

As a cadet at Starfleet Academy, the fictional James Tiberius Kirk was once faced with a problem to solve for which there was no positive alternative included. The purpose of the problem was to see how the cadets handled a setback.

Kirk refused to play the game that way and sneaked into the Academy's computer and reprogrammed the exercise so that there was a positive solution. While the ethics of that approach are doubtful at best, the unrelenting search for a positive solution that lay behind that action is laudable. (It's too bad that Kirk didn't keep going until he found an ethical way out. In other episodes, he did make many difficult decisions that were consistent with his values and those of the Federation, including the Prime Directive of noninterference with other life forms.)

A good example of what can be done to find a positive solution is found in the consequences of many U.S. environmental regulations. The irresistible force here is the common human desire to make all products have less of a negative impact on the environment.

These regulations often prohibit companies from disposing of wastes in the way they had previously done, or ban the use of certain inexpensive ingredients because of the wastes they create. Initially, many companies simply succumb to helplessness and resign themselves to pursuing more expensive manufacturing processes, and earning less money as a result on what is often a higher investment base. The companies do this reluctantly, usually after fighting expensive losing battles with regulators.

Years later, though, many of these enterprises report that some of their workers saw the new regulations as an opportunity to rethink everything the organization did about how the products were produced and distributed to customers. As a result of this rethinking, the cost of the products greatly declined, waste was reduced or recycled into some beneficial form, and the environment was improved as well.

Those who worked on these business process improvements saw the experience as one of the most rewarding ones they ever had. An irresistible force opportunity for you is to use the adversity you face to stimulate employees to find solutions as a way to overcome initial feelings of helplessness and stretch themselves.

Employees may take on a challenge of larger proportions than they usually consider tackling in a situation like this, because they will find the challenge so personally interesting, exciting, and socially beneficial. You can also use the irresistible force of human curiosity to your advantage by posing "what if" questions concerning what might be done in such situations, long before apparently threatening regulations arise. That activity will provide you with many more breakthrough solutions.

You'll want to be sure that the people in your organization understand and agree ahead of time what the ethical limitations are to finding solutions. You should then encourage solutions consistent with those values. Otherwise, you may find that some want to use the organization's success to justify inappropriate means.
About the Author
Donald Mitchell is an author of seven books including Adventures of an Optimist, The 2,000 Percent Squared Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution Workbook, The Irresistible Growth Enterprise, and The Ultimate Competitive Advantage. Read about creating breakthroughs through 2,000 percent solutions and receive tips by e-mail by registering for free at

http://www.2000percentsolution.com .
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