Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Explore and exploit your full potential

Many years ago I played the cornet in a brass band. I remember a time when we gained a new conductor. At the beginning of his first rehearsal with the band he asked us which piece we felt most comfortable performing. I cannot remember which piece it was exactly, but it would have been something like the Academic Overture by Brahms.

We played this piece through from beginning to end. Then the conductor took us back to the quietest section of the music. We played this section through and once we had finished the conductor said, ‘Not quiet enough’. So we played the section through again and again the conductor said, ‘Not quiet enough’. This went on until the conductor seemed fairly content with the level of extreme quietness achieved.

The conductor then took us to the loudest section of the music. We played this through for him and once we had finished he said, ‘Not loud enough’. So we played the section through again and again he said, ‘Not loud enough’. This went on until the conductor seemed fairly content with the level of loudness achieved. Once we had reached this point the band was somewhat relieved, as the extra effort had made us all a bit red faced!

The conductor paused for a moment and then explained why he had made us play the two contrasting sections. He said that average brass bands always played within their comfort zone, never really playing as quietly or as loudly as they could. This resulted in them producing an unexceptionally monochrome, boring type of sound. Excellent bands, however, made a point of stretching themselves to the limits of their abilities to produce extremely quiet or extremely loud playing that maintained its control and musicality. This resulted in them producing an exciting sound that realised and exploited the whole potential of music’s contrasting volumes.

This simple lesson has always stayed with me and its principles can, I believe, be applied within many differing contexts. Most of us tend to address issues and problems from well inside the comfort zone of our well-worn habits, utilising those approaches we prefer or find easiest to use. This is probably fine when what we need to achieve is routine or unexceptional, but if we need to address particularly challenging issues in innovative and creative ways our comfortable and habitual ways of doing things are likely to prove unequal to the task.

To identify innovative solutions to complex issues we need to push at the limits of our skills and potential, and this involves working in ways counter to our ingrained preferences for doing things. This requires additional focus and effort, but the dynamic swathe of creative approaches gained is well worth the labour.

The next time you are presented with a particularly challenging issue that requires some new thinking, seek to fulfil your creative problem solving potential by trying some of the following:
  • Think not only about what is clearly possible but also about those things that are just possible and those things that at first glance seem impossible. Are there any aspects within the latter two areas that, with some effort, could be utilised to your advantage?
  • Challenge your assumptions about the amount of time and other resources you need to address the problem. Do you really need all that is at your disposal? Or are you unnecessarily limiting the resources you can use?
  • Identify the problem solving approaches you habitually tend to avoid and invest effort in trying them out.
  • Identify your problem solving strengths and look for ways to maximise the value you gain from them.
  • Seek out people you are not so familiar or comfortable with and make an effort to work with them.
  • Question your assumptions about whether an approach or solution is too insignificant and simple or too extravagant and complex.
  • Explore the wider context of the issue or drill down hard into its detail.
  • Ask yourself whether you have consulted with people too much and too widely or too little and too narrowly.
  • Challenge others and their ideas a lot more or a lot less.
  • Ask for help a lot more or a lot less.
  • Contribute to discussions and offer ideas a lot more or a lot less.

If you step out of your comfort zone from time to time to explore areas and approaches that you find challenging and stretching, you may be surprised and even delighted by what you discover and achieve.

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