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Looking for solutions in all the wrong places

Oct 12, 2017

Today we are talking about smoke detectors.  Home safety specialists suggest changing all your home’s smoke alarm batteries the same time each year.  Clearly it is a good idea to have them and to keep them in good working order.  But my husband and I have not gotten into that habit.  Our detectors begin a high-pitched chirp when the battery is failing, and then we replace it.  This always seems to happen, however, when my husband is out of place for a few days and always in the middle of the night.  The chirp wakes me from a deep sleep and I sit straight up in bed, heart beating wildly, wondering what woke me.  So I get to find the step stool and climb up to wrestle the battery out and replace it.  And, of course, we never have the right size and have to buy more.

Also, we have quite a few detectors throughout the house so sometimes the hunt for the one failing can take some time.  Hearing the chirp one evening, I start the hunt for the right detector.  I walk the house, stopping to listen near each one.  Then, in an upstairs hallway, I decide I have the right one.  I climb up, open the detector, and take out the battery.  Usually this is sufficient until it can be replaced.  However, the chirping does not stop.  I examine the wiring and wonder why the chirping goes on.  I feel powerless; I feel malevolent.  The chirping does not stop.  I eventually rip the detector off the wall disconnecting the wiring, and…the chirping goes on.  After choice words and exhausting my knowledge of what to do, I get out the earplugs and go back to bed.

Next day, husband returns, looks on other side of the hall wall in the extra bedroom, and there sits the problem, another detector at the exact same spot on the wall but on its opposite side.  Grrrr…

I was thinking about this when contemplating what seems to me an intractable problem—not involving smoke detectors but a management issue.  Sometimes we get so certain we have found the problem, and so focused on manhandling (or in my case womanhandling) what we have diagnosed as the problem, that we can’t conceive of looking somewhere else for its source.  Sometimes it is on the opposite wall.  We may need someone else to refocus our attention, to see the problem a different way, or to actually find the real problem.  Or sometimes we can take ourselves in hand and realize we don’t actually know what the problem is or are only treating a symptom. 

Somewhere in my education I came across the work of Paulo Freire.  Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher who was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy.  His body of work is fascinating but that will need to be dealt with in a different BLOG.  What is relevant here is his concept of the critical value of problem-posing related to learning, also now sometimes called project-based education.  If students work through a problem or project, they stay engaged, use their creativity, and learn more deeply in coming to a solution or conclusion.  In management, the work in continuous improvement conceived by W. Edwards Deming makes the same point.  You have to be deeply engaged to get to the root cause before you can really solve a problem.

So my management problem needs to be looked at in a different way.  I need to work through it, being sure I understand the real problem and its cause, and I need to commit to learning deeply in the process. 

I think this is a lesson I may need to relearn at various points in my life.  Now where did I put those alarm batteries?