It was Friday evening and we were gathering for a class on systems thinking at a local university. As we took our seats in the U-shaped desk formation, we peered over our desks to view an odd array of paraphernalia in the center of the room. There were two plastic matts, side-by-side, each about 2 feet wide by 20 feet long, that looked like racetracks. Both matts had about two dozen objects that appeared to be randomly strewn along them. The objects were things like stuffed animals, a child’s jack-in-the-box toy, a piece of pottery, etc. As the class was gathering, we asked each other what all this was about, but nobody knew.
Then the class officially started and the instructor told us we were going to do an exercise. He split us up into two teams, about 15 people to a team, and assigned each team to a track. He said each team was going to pick one person who was going to be blind-folded and attempt to walk the track from start to finish without touching any objects on the track. If they touched an object, they would have to go back to the starting point. The non-blind-folded members of the team were to give verbal commands to guide the blind-folded person. But before the walking of the track began, he wanted us to do one thing.
Each team was to prepare the track for the other team, as in move the objects in whatever way we wanted. After receiving this instruction, we all eagerly jumped up and began moving the objects so it would be as hard as possible for the other team to take a step without touching an object. Once this was complete, the blind-folded walking began, and as to be expected, it was very difficult for the walkers to make it through the course without touching an object. I was very happy when my team finally “won” by getting our walker to the finish line first. Then the instructor revealed the point.
The instructor said “Why did you assume this was a competition? I never said it was a competition”. We then all sat back in our chairs and pondered this. Why hadn’t we moved the objects on the other team’s track to the side, to make it easy for their walker. The only explanation we had was that it never occurred to us.
This illustrates that some of our beliefs are so deep-rooted that they impact our decisions without us even thinking about them. At least in Western societies, we are predisposed to think of the world as though there are winners and losers, and our goal is to always be one of the winners. This translates into a foregone conclusion that it’s good business practice to always negotiate with other parties so that we retain the most dollars in any transaction. In other words, we believe we’ve done a good job when we get the lowest price from vendors and charge the highest price to customers. Does this really serve us?
It’s interesting that some extremely successful companies operate with different beliefs. In the automotive industry, there’s a huge difference between how Toyota negotiates with suppliers as compared to the American Big Three automakers – Ford, GM, and Chrysler. At least as of 2004, the Big Three aggressively pursued the lowest cost in negotiations and created adversarial relationships with suppliers. In contrast, Toyota created close-knit networks of vendors, where all companies prospered. Toyota’s extraordinary financial success is well known.
We would be wise to become conscious of our unconscious beliefs, so we can determine which ones serve us and change the ones that don’t.
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