This weekend, I attended a minor-league hockey game with my son. Before the pro game, a group of youngsters from a local league had the honor of playing hockey on the ice. When we entered the arena, the little guys were ending up their game with a very lopsided score of 8-1.
As the kids played, however, another boy in the stands next to us noticed that the goalie of the team with the 7-goal lead was sitting or kneeling, all alone at his end of the ice, and about 10 feet outside of the blue-colored goal crease, where the goalies usually play. The boy next to us exclaimed, in absolute certainty, that the goalie HAD to stay in his crease.
I turned to him and asked, “Why?” He looked at me in disbelief, as if I must be dense for even thinking that the goalie wouldn’t ever NOT be in his crease. The boy told me, once again, that the goalie HAD to. There wasn’t a reason why – there wasn’t even the thought that there might be a reason why. It just simply WAS. The crease is where the goalie is supposed to be, so if he’s not there, he’s breaking the rules. ”What happens if he’s not in the blue?” I asked. ”Does his team get a penalty?”
Of course not, and the boy who had been so adamant about where the goalie is supposed to go, rather than contemplate this new information, simply stated once more, in a loud voice for everyone to hear, that the goalie HAS to go in the blue-colored area designated for goalies.
Clearly, what had happened at some point in this unfortunate child’s past is that someone told him that the goalie has to stay in the blue area. Perhaps this boy plays hockey himself, and some coach hollered “Stay in the crease!” without ever trying to explain to the boy why. We can all come up with some version of the back story that explains the boy’s certainty over where the goalie plays.
What I saw in his behavior, however, is something that adults do, too: When faced with information that contradicts our understanding of the way things are supposed to be, we revert back to what we already know, claiming disbelief in the rightness of what we’re seeing and failing to examine the situation in order to develop a new understanding. We are told to follow the rules, even if we don’t understand them, and we insist on following the rules even when it is pointed out that those rules were based on false assumptions.
Truth is, the goalie can go anywhere on the ice that he wants – just like every other player. The goalie is, of course, usually much better off when he stays in his crease – which is a matter of choice and not one of obedience. It also represents an understanding of Why vs. What: The rule tells you What to do (stay in the crease). Developing a person’s ability to think through a problem addresses the Why: (If the goalie is in the crease, he usually has a better chance of playing the puck…..but not always!) When you know why something is done, you also develop an understanding of when the rule doesn’t apply and also how it can be done differently.
That combination – knowing when the usual rules don’t apply and also how to accomplish a task outside of the rules – is the foundation for thinking critically – which also lays the foundation for innovation & creativity. It also enables people to focus more on the results: Was there any damage done from playing outside of the crease? Did the goalie hurt his team or help it, or make no difference whatsoever?
The presumption that not following the rules leads to a bad outcome is, itself, a really bad rule that should come under examination. What if you did the “wrong” thing? What would the wrong thing look like? Who determined what “wrong” is? In this example, the only thing that matters is whether or not the goalie let the puck into the net. If he did not – what difference would it make where he was standing?
Now, ask yourself these questions when trying to demonstrate the need for change in your organization: What if we didn’t bid on this project? What if I didn’t write that report? What if I let the fire burn instead of rushing to put it out, even though I’ve no idea what would happen if I left it alone?
Truth is, we all end up doing a great many things simply because we believe we’re supposed to. That belief in the way things are supposed to be starts in childhood, with a lot of reinforcement. What we should all be doing, however, is teaching people of all ages to raise questions. Doing so, however, places the burden on the rest of us to have good answers – the lack of which might be the root cause behind “just follow the rule” thinking anyway.