Don't get stuck looking for the past | Mike Cook

On Saturday as I was beginning the drive to my 50th high school reunion I had one of those experiences that has become all too familiar over the years. See if you can relate.

I had a 25-minute drive to my destination, plenty of time, and suddenly a thought popped into my head, “It sure would be nice to have a cup of coffee right now!” As it happened I was passing by a truck stop and of course there is no place better for coffee than a truck stop.

I pulled in and parked. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for and that’s when things got interesting. Too many times while driving with a cup of coffee I have burned my mouth. So I usually look for an ice machine, grab a handful, and use it to cool my coffee. After putting milk in my coffee I headed for the ice machine and took care of that need as well. Now it was time to leave and I needed a lid for my cup so I headed back over to the coffee station. To my surprise—no lids. The coffee station had two sides so I decided the lids must be on the other side. Around to the other side I went and again, no lids.

When I pulled in for the coffee I had an extra ten minutes—plenty of time to get the coffee, pay for it and get back on the road. Now I noticed I was getting anxious because that ten minutes were almost up. I didn’t want to drive with an open cup of coffee but I didn’t want to be late either. Now I had a choice I didn’t like: leave the coffee and be on time or drive without a lid. I took a deep breath and said to myself, maybe they are under the counter in the little closets. Quickly I looked and still no lids. “Well this is silly,” I said to myself. “Of course there are lids for the cups, nobody sells coffee to truck drivers without lids.”

Maybe you’ve been here yourself as a manager of employer. You are observing one of your newer employees approaching a task you have completed hundreds of times yourself. And they are not doing it right! You are faced with a dilemma, step in and show them “the right way” or let them proceed, make a mistake, waste some time, maybe disappoint a customer or worse, lose the customer forever and then risk a bad online review. There is a lot at stake and time is running out. You hesitate, frozen in the moment, and the employee proceeds as they had planned. Much to your surprise, their way works! Momentarily you feel chagrin; you were wrong. Wait, maybe they just got lucky? No, you see the same employee treat the next situation exactly the same and again their way works. Rats! Now you are embarrassed.

But what were you wrong about? Certainly you were not wrong about the way you had been doing it. You know from experience that your way works and you had trained other employees to do it your way and they were successful as well. Maybe you were not wrong at all, maybe you were simply stuck, looking for what had always worked. You were locked into thinking there was one right way to get this done rather than multiple ways. But good for you, in your moment of hesitation you created a learning experience for yourself and you allowed an employee to experience finding a solution of their own, a true win/win.

And the coffee lids? Oh yes they were indeed there all along, cleverly disguised, of course. In the moment after I hesitated to leave the coffee behind a new thought occurred to me. What was it I was looking for? Lids—white or black lids, everyone knows that’s the way they come. So, instead of lids I quickly looked for a sign that said “lids” and there it was! I was saved; I’d have my coffee and be on time as well. Right above the “lids” sign there were, in fact, lids. In this case they just happened to be red! Red lids, that’s not right. But as I found out, they worked just fine. So now I know, lids can be white or black and once in a while they can be red. It’s a whole new world!

And the reunion? It was terrific.

Mike Cook lives in Anacortes. His columns appear on every other Tuesday. He teaches in the MBA program at Western Washington University and also runs a CEO peer advisory group in the Bellingham area.

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