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Intelligent disobedience

Blog

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Intelligent disobedience

Scott Miker

Yesterday I decided to take advantage of the nice spring weather we are having and I took a walk on my lunch break.  Being in downtown Cleveland, there are a lot of places to walk to and see and it makes for a relaxing break from work.

As I was walking down E 9th street I saw a man walking with a dog.  I see quite a few dogs downtown on my walks but I noticed that this was a working dog.  The man was blind and the dog was helping to guide him around the city.

This isn’t the first time I saw a Seeing Eye dog but it really got me thinking.  How can a dog help guide a blind person around a city, where there is organized chaos?  Yet somehow the dog is able to navigate the difficult situations to help keep the owner safe.

But I started to think about a trip to New Orleans that I took with my wife before we were married.  I had a seminar and we decided to make it a little vacation and stay a few extra days. 

After checking in to the hotel we decided to walk around and see the city.  As we walked we were both a little surprised by how busy it was.  Neither of us had spent much time in a city so this represented a nice little adventure for us.  At one point we approached a busy intersection. 

We were behind several other people waiting to cross.  Once the traffic subsided the people in front of us started to walk and we followed right along.  But the signal wasn’t green for us and a car came streaking by honking their horn and scaring us half to death.  After that we paid more attention to the walk signals!

But thinking about my initial experience walking in a city, I wondered how on earth could a dog be trained to guide blind people. 

As I walked I thought about how we can train these animals in these environments.  Knowing the basics of training and habits, I can see some of the process but it still doesn’t seem possible. 

So I decided to do a quick search to see how these animals are trained.  I read about how they are taught to avoid obstacles that the human would run into, even if the dog would miss the obstacle, such as a low hanging tree branch or overpass. 

I learned that the dogs need to be utilized in order to retain their ability to guide.  If they go long periods without “working” they slowly lose this ability. 

I couldn’t help but see the correlation between our own self-improvement and the dogs.  We can do all sorts of things but need to adjust our routines to do so, and if we stop doing something we slowly lose that ability. 

But one aspect of guide dogs really interested me.  The various Seeing Eye dog websites explain that dogs can’t see the colors to know when to cross.  They are not actually looking at the lights to know when to cross.

In fact, what is happening is that the human is guiding the dog.  The human tells the dog that he wants to cross the street.  The dog senses whether or not it is safe and then either goes along with the owner or refuses to obey the owners command.  They call this intelligent disobedience. 

Building systems and habits in order to improve, this concept intrigued me.  It was opposite of what I assumed was happening but still had the same outcome…a safe crossing of the street by the human. 

In order to keep the person safe, the dog has to disobey the command.  By doing the opposite of what the human wants to do, the dog is able to keep the person safe navigating complex situations. 

I started to think about this concept and realized that the idea that doing the opposite to achieve a goal isn’t new.  If we want to be happy and healthy this often means going against the urge to eat something unhealthy, even if that makes us happy right now.  Many times this means being unhappy in the short term but knowing that this is what is best for us long term…intelligent disobedience.    

I also thought about a project I worked on years ago at work.  We were given a task that seemed impossible.  Many of the people involved said that it would never work and was truly not possible.  But we kept working at it and found creative solutions and actually solved the problem. 

If asked if it was possible for a dog to help a blind person navigate city streets I would tell you it sounds impossible.  Yet someone solved this problem and systematized it.  Now the solution is common, even if it still seems crazy!

By being creative and innovative we can design systems that accomplish incredible things.  By looking at ways that people have solved problems systematically, we can start to develop the right processes for us to improve and reach our goals.