Have you ever experienced a recurring issue at work and despite thinking from multiple angles, no clear solutions come up? Or have you looked for something in your refrigerator or bookshelf and not been able to find it, only to discover it was right there in front of you the whole time? Sometimes to find what you’re looking for, you have to first update the search image that your mind is using to look for it.
Today we’re going to take a few minutes to talk about a subject I’m passionate about that came up at a recent leadership program about guiding minds and finding solutions. We’re talking about that phenomenon when you’re looking for something and you can’t find it, and it was right there in front of you the whole time. There’s this guy, John Lubbock, who wrote The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live In many years ago. And he said that in the same field, the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists will notice the fossils, the botanists will notice the flowers, the artists will notice the colors, and the sportsmen will notice the cover for the game. So everyone’s looking at the same picture, but it does not follow that everyone sees the same things. We don’t all see the same things and this is critical for ourselves, for our leadership, and for our teams.
When I introduced this episode before we opened, I said, have you ever looked for something in your refrigerator or your bookshelf and you’re not able to find it? And it was there the whole time. Maybe you went to the bookshelf looking for a blue paperback when in reality the book was green. Or you open the refrigerator searching for the metal bowl wrapped in foil. But those delicious leftovers were actually hiding in a clear Tupperware. And as frustrating as that is, there’s a reason that your brain works this way. And it’s important for you to know as a leader that this is the way everyone’s brain works and if you can shine some light on the search image your team is using, you will be able to find more solutions.
We’re gonna take a little detour into biology here to a biologist looking at a bird’s eating pattern and noticing something interesting. Imagine that you’re a bird that eats worms and grasshoppers. You love worms and grasshoppers. You’re perfectly happy with both. So when there are an equal amount of worms and grasshoppers around, you might guess that you’d eat equal amounts of both, and you’d be right. But what happens when the availability of your food changes? Let’s say that there are now 70% grasshoppers and 30% worms available. Well, you might guess that your diet would now reflect 70-30 grasshoppers to worms, but that’s where it gets interesting. That’s not what happens. The birds actually ate way more grasshoppers when grasshoppers are more prevalent, the birds almost stop eating worms altogether and just eat grasshoppers. And it works the other way too. If you got 70% worms available, the birds would almost ignore the grasshoppers in favor of the worms. How curious is that? And scientists love those moments of, well, that’s weird. That means there’s a discovery about to happen. As a leader too, when you find those well, that’s weird or that’s curious moments, there’s a discovery about to happen for you and your team. It turns out that when one source of food is more abundant, the bird’s attention narrows to focus on just that one kind of food. When they’re focused on grasshoppers, they don’t see the worms, even though they could happily eat them. But why, why is that?
The answer is energy. When grasshoppers are more available, it takes fewer bird brain cells firing to focus in on the insects. They get more food and spend less energy to find and catch it. That search image is an efficient way to stay alive and feed your baby birds. All right, so let’s take this out of biology, and let’s head over to Los Angeles where you can find a strange sort of sign tied to telephone poles and fences or stuck in traffic cones. You’ll see these signs and they’ll often feature a random word, a group of letters placed over an arrow. They also temporarily appear and disappear from day to day. What are these signs? They’re production placards. They guide the cast and crew to filming locations without them having to rely on maps or GPS and the random word or letters are codes for a particular movie.
With type production schedules in multiple filming, the signs make it easy for everyone to get where they need to be. No addresses to worry about. Just follow the signs with your code word. These production placards are bright yellow with black lettering, but there’s no policy manual that mandates their color. And one time a studio asked for their placards to be made with a blue background and white lettering. So the manufacturer printed 300 of those blue signs, but within three days, the client returned and said, Nope, we need the traditional yellow signs. Why? Everyone was driving past the blue signs without seeing them. That’s a search image, just like the worms and grasshoppers, just like you going to the bookshelf looking for that green book when it’s actually blue.
In the 1990s, I served as an elected councilman for the city of Glendale, Colorado and one year the council and the city staff started working on a plan to build the city’s first Preschool and Kindergarten. At that point, there wasn’t a single public preschool or kindergarten anywhere in the city. And families that wanted their children to attend those early education opportunities had to bus or drive their kids several miles. And our poorest students were losing out on all the long-term learning that preschool and Kindergarten are proven to offer, but we were stuck. Why? Well, in city council meetings, people would offer an idea for moving the project forward, and it would get shot down, bring up an idea for funding, and you’d get obstacles, talk about features in design, and we’d have three or four dissenting ideas. None of the ideas were able to develop into solutions because everyone was focused on looking at the obstacles. And this our mayor, his name was Joe Rice, stood upright in the middle of someone’s this won’t work speech about using the classroom after school hours and made a timeout signal like a football referee.
He said, look, we can find a thousand reasons why this won’t work, but that’s the wrong question. For the next 10 minutes, let’s share only about how we can make it work and the solutions we could find. And in that moment, the mood shifted. The next person who spoke said, if we can afford to hold an afterschool program for all the kids, as the last speaker said, then I’d like to make a plan for which ones we can serve. I propose our first priority to start with the youngest children, the four and five-year-olds. And energy built as the next speaker agreed and proposed holding a study session for their parents. And the discussion continued for the rest of the meeting, and not one person mentioned going back to the old way of working on the project. Of course, some ideas didn’t make the cut, but they didn’t get in the way of the rest of the project moving forward. And for many years now that early childhood education center has given students who need it the most fantastic start on learning. How can we make it work? That’s a question from a leader who understands the power of search image, if you’re looking for problems that’s what you’ll find. Look for beauty. There it is. Look for solutions, and they’ll appear.
So my question for you is, what are you looking for? Are you looking for solutions or are you looking for problems? Are you looking for reasons things won’t work? Or are you looking for ways and opportunities to get there to make it work? And even more importantly, as a leader, how are you guiding the brains, and the minds on your team? Are you helping them to look for solutions by asking questions like, how can we, or are you keeping them focused on being stuck by looking at problems rather than solutions?
This is one of those powerful, powerful leadership concepts with so many different applications, easy to talk about, but many, many different ways to use it. Brains, minds, human minds. Find what they’re looking for with the power of search image. What’s the search image that you’re giving your team? Help everyone to focus on solutions. Look for solutions, and you’re on your way to being the leader you’d want your boss to be. And once again, quick Postscript, if you enjoyed this episode, taken, adapted from my most recent book, Tomorrow Together, Essays of Hope, Healing and Humanity with many reflective essays, leadership-oriented essays, and many others that are just about life and really focused on that human-centered part of the human-centered leadership experience and journey. Thanks again for listening. You can find the book anywhere books are sold. So appreciate you. Have a great day.