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This Country Walks With Crutches

Jan 24, 2008
After taking my order, the young man behind the register announced, "That'll be $6.96." I handed him seven dollars and a penny. The puzzled look on his face made it clear he had no idea what to do with that penny. After what seemed like a long time, I explained, "I'd like a nickel back." He reached in the register with a doubtful look yet gave me the nickel I was expecting. The transaction was complete, but I couldn't stop thinking about what really happened.

Webster's Dictionary defines a crutch as "a supporting stick fitted under the armpit in walking." I'm generally opposed to having sticks fitted anywhere, including under the armpit. It's true we all need a little help now and then, but relying on crutches day to day doesn't make life easier. In my case, they only make my armpits sore.

Think Again

In the story above, the crutch the young man used was the cash register. It supported him so he had no need of basic math skills. The business owner depends on a "smart" cash register that is programmed to correctly compute an order, add in sales tax and display the total. The clerk enters the cash received, and change due is computed. Only one thing is missing from this process; the clerk is never required to think. The more the manager and employees rely on these crutches, the dumber the organization becomes.

As a society we've come to depend on crutches that allow us to be weak, stupid and lazy. I believe we should automate tasks only when we understand how to do them manually. That means:
*** Use a shovel before jumping behind the controls of a backhoe.
*** Plan a trip on a fold-out map before running to MapQuest.
*** Master addition and subtraction (with a pencil and paper if not in your head) before turning on a calculator or cash register.

Today's leaders are shortchanging our society when they hand crutches to people who have never learned to fully "walk" on their own. Which leaders do I mean? Parents, teachers and business owners all play important roles in training the folks who will be responsible for generating tomorrow's economic prosperity, the folks I'm counting on to fund my Social Security checks someday.

Support Hosed

Spell Check is a great convenience, and I'm thankful that my word processing software incorporated it long ago. I still keep the old-fashioned dictionary and thesaurus (it even sounds like a dinosaur, doesn't it?) close to my desk for those times when Spell Check can't cut it. Spell Check is a great tool, but it is just one tool that doesn't work in every situation. When all you have is a hammer, stay far away from me. Leaders can ensure that many different tools are available, that they are current, and that all are trained to use them.

Librarians are often stereotyped (I'm thinking a nerd with no social life whose ears would start bleeding during the first set at a Stones concert), but one thing we should reasonably expect from them is expertise about libraries. Hey, it's their job, right? I approached the reference desk of my local library and asked if they had any books that could give me a specific type of business information. The librarian asked, "Did you try looking it up on the computer?" I have no proof (can't let that stop me), but I suspect my county government decided they didn't need to hire experts in library science to staff the libraries because each branch was given a crutch called a searchable database. All staff is needed for today is to help patrons to check out books, and then put the books back on the shelves when they're returned. You can't even get a good "Shhh" anymore.

Leadership has pushed for cost-savings through self-service, which usually translates into no service at all. As the comedienne Lily Tomlin once quipped, "We're all in this alone." Technology crutches and a lack of social interaction only amplify the need for critical thinking.

Do Not Pass Goal

Board games have long been a way to socialize our young people. For example, Monopoly by Hasbro is a great way to foster critical thinking traits in a competitive environment. Players learn about strategy, flexibility, negotiation, cash flow and asset management. Unfortunately the new "improved" Monopoly is unsuitable for children. Monopoly Electronic Banking has replaced the pretty Monopoly money with debit cards. Players no longer have to handle cash or do the accounting! For adults familiar with the game, the new version does play faster. For children, speed comes at the expense of learning. When children lose, they have no idea why. Stupid. While they may feel confused and unsatisfied after playing this "updated" game, at least their armpits don't hurt from the debit card.

Our leaders of tomorrow depend on the leaders of today to ensure they are trained to think. It's critical we teach our children, our students and our employees how and why things work, so they can think for themselves. Turn off the technology now and then and ask folks to "rough it" using only their minds and a pencil and paper. Make sure your people are proficient with hand tools before you turn the power on. Play games that require solving problems using both the hands and the head. Pretty soon we'll all be more potent, intelligent and resourceful, and we'll be happy to leave all the crutches in the corner.

Copyright 2008 Paul Johnson
About the Author
Paul Johnson the Trouble Breaker is a keynote speaker who works with organizations to convert trouble into double and triple digit performance breakthroughs. Discover breakthrough concepts at http://www.paul-johnson.com. Visit http://TroubleBreaker.com for leadership presentations for performance improvement.
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