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Stay curious

Improving Systems and Habits

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.  

Stay curious

Scott Miker

Watching my young daughters grow up, I am amazed at the insatiable curiosity that they exhibit.  They seem to crave reason and understanding for everything.

They are constantly asking why or why not.  At first, I simply sat back and thought, “I never really thought about that.”  But over time I have realized that a little curiosity can be beneficial to adults as well.

By adulthood we tend to form many opinions and then spend the rest of our lives standing by those opinions.  We aren’t flexible in thought.  We are rigid.

This rigidity means that we often form an inaccurate opinion of something before we fully understand.  We don’t have to know every detail to jump to a conclusion on something.

I can tell when I am tired and frustrated because if my daughter asks me a question during these times sometimes I mutter, “I don’t know it just is.”

But when I stop to explore many of these questions, I realize just how much I don’t know.  Many people that fly in planes have no idea how they work.  Those of us that drive every day to work probably have minimal understanding of how a gasoline engine works. 

We don’t need the understanding to take advantage of the technology.  We don’t have to understand all the zeros and ones to play a CD.  We simply need to put it in the CD player and press play.

But what this seems to do is have us change from an exploration mindset to one that just wants it to work.

At work I find myself in this zone often.  A problem comes up and it is a technical area that I am not familiar with.  I have to explore why the problem occurred and how we adjust our systems and processes so the problem doesn’t happen again.

Sometimes we can rely on experts around us.  We can ask them questions to better understand use their insights to help form a viable solution. 

But other times we have to dive in to figure it out.  We have to gain enough insight to know the system and how the change might impact the interconnected systems. 

If we start adding a quality control step at the end of our manufacturing line, it could grow our confidence that what leaves the factory is of a high quality.  But that could also make the process take longer (aka more expensive).  It could also mean that those in charge of building the product don’t have to be as precise because they just assume it will be caught and fixed at the QC process.

I’ve seen this manifest in many areas of work over the years.  When I was a recording engineer working on a band’s album I would constantly hear that we could just “fix it in the mix”.  Basically it meant they didn’t have the play it right, we can edit the audio file when we get to the end of the project and start mixing all the elements together.  This came about because the technology became so capable of editing audio quickly that it suddenly was easier to change it in the computer than to have the musician play it correctly. 

When I was in software development, I noticed some of the software developers would forego some basic testing of their new code because quality assurance (QA) individual would catch it.  They saved time but the cost was that QA’s job became more difficult and it increased the chances that the software code would not be released and would have to be pushed back until we had time to fix the code. 

When it comes to systems thinking, we have to maintain the curiosity of a young child.  We have to explore and keep asking why and why not. 

This is how we continue to learn and avoid some of the errors that shortcutting can create.  By adulthood it seems like the shortcut is there so we can just skip over all the work and get to the result quickly.

But doing that might create a whole new set of problems that you don’t even see today, just as adding in the QC role in a manufacturing plant might impact how the product is being made and how precise those making it are.

So in designing systems in your own life, make sure you don’t just try to find a quick solution, make sure you are working to better understand the system.  You can come up with better solutions and avoid many of the side effects that arise when we take a short-sighted approach just by staying curious.