The route from my home to the office runs over a railway intersection at a place called Avenor in Accra Ghana. Once in a while I see a middle-aged man using a pickaxe to remove the deposits of sand choking the steel rail. The first time I saw this I wondered to myself if this was the best way to do this> This bothered me because the rail line tended to be a bottleneck because of the fact that the railway sleepers had been badly damaged thus creating a sort of pot hole at that point on the intersection.
In my layman’s opinion, solving the traffic problem at that spot could just be a matter of filling the portion in between the two steel rails with gravel but I guess this might negatively impact the trains. But the more reason why I am doing this post today is that when I passed there this morning (21st May), it occurred to me that the gentleman cleaning the rail line was just doing what he was told. He probably had no idea why he was doing what he was doing.
The man at the railway crossing is not alone in this quagmire. A large number of individuals who work for large companies also find themselves simply doing as they are told. This passive approach to work arises from the fact that most people are working simply to get a salary, they bring nothing new into their routine tasks, ask very few “WHY” questions and have no long term vision asides from looking for how to please the boss enough for a promotion.
Do you find yourself in this mediocre group? I hope not. Bringing passion, thoughtfulness and innovation to your job is a gift you give yourself. The most valuable takeaway you will gain from your current workplace is knowledge and experience. Being fully engaged will give you that.
More than once, twice or thrice in my work place I have had situations where management wanted something and I insisted that it was either not possible or too difficult to invest energy in. There were other times where I or a colleague in the same team insisted that a particular problem was not within the scope of my team. More than once or twice we would later find new ways of delivering what management wanted or in the case of incidents found that the root cause was actually traceable to our area.
Attitude is a very critical component of problem solving in any discipline. We must search ourselves and ask whether we really want to solve a problem or we simple don’t want to be found culpable. Some work environments contribute to an attitude which says “It’s not my problem so why bother?” but whether the cause is a flawed workplace culture or otherwise, we can solve more problems if we are more open, and more willing to try harder, learn more and work as a team.
Having the right attitude tends to open up our minds and help us think outside the box. Thinking more broadly produces new ideas. A defensive posture blocks our minds and the minds of those we are defending ourselves against. When everybody is playing “defensive midfielder”, nobody really attacks the problem to the point of delivering a solutions. We should also be aware that there is a world of difference between explaining why we think the problem is not ours and real, productive brainstorming with other teams. When we focus on explaining why the problem is not ours, we are leveraging on what we already know and forget that there are many things we do not yet know.
Let me conclude by recalling a story from my previous workplace. We had a certain issue with licensing on BMC Remedy AR System which indicated that the MAC Address on a blade servers Network Interface Card had changed. A number of “IT Professionals” laughed me to scorn when I sent emails indicating that the server’s MAC Address had changed because “everybody knows that MAC Addresses don’t change. After thorough investigation it turned out that when certain options are setup, pulling a blade out of its slot and pushing it back in actually changes the MAC address. We had to go all the way to the OEM to learn this. And it took someone with an open mind to go that far and teach us all something new.
Please forgive the excessive jargon in the last paragraph. It’s just buttressing the thought earlier communicated. Have an open mind when given new tasks or when you need to solve new problems. You are likely to solve the problem faster and learn something new in the course of it.
A few years ago I worked under a very meticulous and committed boss who taught me a number of important things about how to take work seriously. He told me a story once about the impact of a simple ATM to real life. I will repeat the story here but I will extend the thought for the purposes of this article. A fellow we shall call Kwaku rushes his wife to a hospital somewhere in Africa on a Sunday evening and the nurses refuse to attend to her emergency until he makes a deposit of let’s say GHS250.00 (about fifty dollars). The woman is dying and after arguing with the nurses, the callously insist that he must pay something before his wife can be given a bed. They point to him an ATM machine about four blocks from the hospital and he rushes out to try the ATM paying he still has enough money in his account. The ATM delays for several minutes when he enters his PIN and finally responds with the familiar message “Your Financial Institution is currently unavailable“. He gasps and looks around while pulling out his ATM card.
Kwaku rushes over to a Mobile Money operator by the road side attempts to withdraw the GHS100 had left on his phone. Maybe the nurses would listen to him if he had part of the money. The Mobile Money Operator looks away and insists that she had closed for the day. He begs her stating he had an emergency at the hospital and she replies “Please, don’t make your problem my problem! I have closed! Go to the ATM over there!“. She hurriedly closes her kiosk and Kwaku sights the second ATM belonging to another bank. He tries the ATM but is disappointed with another message: “… temporarily unavailable to dispense cash”. He calls al taxi who takes him to another ATM about five hundred meters from the hospital and returns with the money but by that time his wife is no longer breathing. AT the sight of GH250.00, the nurses rush his wife to a free bed and begin trying to attend to her. She is confirmed dead twelve hours later.
Who should be blamed for the death of Kwaku’s wife? There are many responses which the various players in this story can give to this question:
Nurses: “This is hospital policy. We cannot attend to anyone without assurance that the person can pay. Do you want me to lose my job?”
Server Admin: “I have worked all week and you also want me to be bothered that the Core Banking System is down on a Sunday evening? Please we will look at it tomorrow. Today is Sabbath!”
Mobile Money Operator: “How is that my problem? Am I the only Mobile Money Operate in Accra? Let him use the ATM na”
ATM Custodian: “How many people live in that area by the way? How can they be exhausting the money in the ATM every few hours? Please I am tired! Let them come back tomorrow? What are they buying this evening. Don’t they rest?”
This reminds me of another example given my Dr. Mensa Otabil regarding the building of a cathedral. Three masons are asked the same question: “What are you doing?”. One answers, “I am laying bricks!” another, “I am building a wall” and the third, “We are building a cathedral. It will seat 10000 worshippers. The structure is designed to last one hundred years”. You see all three were masons but one had much deeper understanding of what the team was doing and what his role was. That understanding did not come from his pay cheese, it must have come more from his attitude. And I can tell you, one way or the order, attitudes can change pay cheques but pay cheques are not guaranteed to change attitudes. You know it’s easy to turn this on another person but take a step back and think like a customer waiting thirty minutes on the queue at a bank because the system was slow. You start yelling at the teller forgetting you just advised your brother who works at the Tech Company that supports that same bank that he needed to slow down and not work so hard!
How do you understand your role at work? Do you understand the full impact of your day job, whether you work for yourself or for a large company? Do you understand how your skills affect the lives of others? Are you just earning a living or are you actually making a contribution to life? It’s simply a way of thinking. I hope you can embrace it.