Harvey McKay: It's worth hatching some ideas that take flight from conformity

The kindergarten teacher handed out a coloring sheet and gave what she considered to be simple instructions: Color the duck yellow and the duck's umbrella green.

But when little Betsy turned in her paper, the teacher asked, "Didn't you understand the directions, Betsy? You colored the duck red and her umbrella blue. How often have you seen a red duck?"

Betsy didn't miss a beat.

"About as often as I've seen a duck carrying an umbrella," she replied.

Is Betsy a young rebel? Hasn't she learned her colors? Should her parents be called for a parent-teacher conference?

Well, Betsy may not be the model student, but she represents a stellar thinker.

Pretty bright for a 5-year-old, and I hope the teacher had a sense of humor as well as a sense of wonder. I hope there was a glimmer of recognition that Betsy might become the next Pablo Picasso or Bill Gates.

I am not advocating disobedience or disrespect. I am encouraging expanding your mind to find new and better ways to address issues.

Conformity is absolutely necessary sometimes. For example, following traffic laws demands conformity or else chaos reigns. Paying taxes requires conformity, and if you don't believe me, ask anyone whose creative deductions have resulted in substantial penalties -- or prison. And when your mother tells you to shape up, I would recommend conforming.

But conformity will not provide a creative solution to a problem. That usually calls for a different approach from what has been tried before, or a variation on the theme. Free thinkers are often dismissed as goofballs -- until their ideas have smashing success.

Train your brain to look at all the possibilities, not just those that are tried-and-true (or tried and failed.) To do that, you cannot think the way you've always thought. Try these strategies:

Look at the whole picture. It's easy to look for the simplest solution, but will that really solve your problem or just patch it up for the time being? Is this problem the result of following all the old rules instead of re-examining your practices for improvement?

Put yourself in another time. How would you have solved the problem 10 years ago? How about 10 years from now? Would you have the same choices available, or would you have to start over? Do you have all the tools/knowledge/staff you need?

Reverse the situation. What would a reasonable person do in your situation? What is the opposite strategy? You might gain a fresh perspective by considering the alternatives.

Bridge the gap. Think about where you are now, and where you need to be. How many steps are missing? Can you solve the problem with fewer steps, or are you so far from a solution that starting over is a real option?

Put your thoughts in writing. Spend a few minutes brainstorming all by yourself, and be sure to write down your ideas. Brainstorming means letting your imagination go, so nothing is out of bounds.

Some ideas will be useless. Others might hold some promise. But the main point of this exercise is conditioning your brain to leave your comfort zone.

Speak up! Don't hide your ideas, fearing that you'll become the office joke. Your idea may not be completely viable, but you might spark others to find solutions.

Here's another duck tale for you. The late Thomas J. Watson, who built IBM into a worldwide power in computers, frequently shared a story about a man who loved to watch the flight of wild ducks.

Each year the man left feed by a nearby lake so the ducks would stop to eat. Some of the ducks grew accustomed to finding food there and stopped flying south, wintering at the lake instead.

Over time, the ducks grew fat and lazy, because they had lost their need to migrate south when everything they needed was provided for them.

The moral of the story is that you can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again.

Watson's lesson from that story was that he liked to encourage the "wild ducks" at IBM as an antidote to conformity and bureaucracy.

Mackay's Moral: It's OK to ruffle a few feathers from time to time. Show some pluck!

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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