Maximize Your Most Valuable Asset

Whack-a-mole is a game where you stand over a machine with a bunch of holes on the bottom. Faces pop up really quickly, and you smash them down as fast as you can.

It's fun.
As adults we experience whack-a-mole all the time, except that the reality of it is not so fun.

Overwhelmed by problems, some expected and most of them not, we bring that mallet down on the board. Faster, faster, we tell ourselves, hoping the timer won't run out until we're ready.

What can we do to make our lives easier and more manageable? How can we reduce the onslaught of tasks, requirements, challenges, puzzles, deadlines and demands that seem to have no end?

The answer might lie in the way we think about "problem" and "solution."

Chris Argyris was a pioneer of "double-loop" learning for organizations, which he developed as a way of helping them transform from dysfunctional and "stuck" to agile and adaptive--in essence, to help them learn.

The task as he saw it was to overcome "single-loop learning," meaning the tendency to focus on a presenting problem and tackle it with an incremental and obvious solution.

The sophisticated organization practices "double-loop learning," meaning they challenge their assumptions about what the problem is before devising a strategy in response.

Double-loop learning is uncomfortable and even risky -- there's no doubt about it.
  • It makes you slow down, when all you want to do is hurry up and allay the anxiety of knowing that something is wrong.
  • It exposes the wound for all to see, when everybody wants to cover it up.
  • It makes the people involved feel pain, when everyone would vastly prefer a horse-sized tranquilizer dart.
  • It makes people look at the consequences of others' behavior, creating the possibility of organizational conflict.
  • It makes people accountable for their own actions, which exposes them to the potential loss of status, material benefits and even legal liability.
But if the organization -- and by extension, the individual -- can tolerate all of the above, the potential benefits they stand to gain are enormous.

If "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result" -- then it follows that sanity means changing the way you do things when necessary.

By engaging in double-loop learning, over and over again, over time, you not only learn how to handle a current challenge better but you also learn how to prevent future problems from occurring.

This is essentially the practice of branding in a nutshell. Branding means reflection. It is a long-term, preventive approach to your professional life and your personal life. The emphasis is on thinking through what your assumptions are, and holding them up to evidence, before you make any decisions.

A simpler way of saying all of this is as follows: Your most valuable asset is the capacity to reflect.

Some people say that time is the most valuable commodity in the world, and whoever has lots of it is wealthy.

But most people have time on their hands. And too often, they waste it.

I would argue that the capacity to reflect is what makes your time valuable.

If you regularly think about what you're doing, and whether it makes sense, and what the likely future impact will be -- that is a great use of your time.

Every minute you spend reflecting is a way of challenging your own deeply held assumptions about the world.

The result will be a more effective method of handling things. In other words, less heads popping up from that whack-a-mole machine.

I'm reminded of a joke my father-in-law, may he rest in peace, used to tell so very well.

"Little boy, why are you banging your head against the wall like that, over and over again?"

"Because it feels so good when I stop."


All opinions my own. Main photo: Geralt/Pixabay (Public Domain). Whack-a-mole photo: Emil Ovemar via Flickr (Creative Commons). Single- vs. Double-Loop Learning Graphic: Ian Guest via Flickr (Creative Commons).