Jack Uldrich
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Think Small and Unlearn

Posted in Unlearning Lesson

If we are to achieve results never before accomplished, we must employ methods never before attempted.” –Sir Francis Bacon

Question #12: If the average temperature of the earth increases due to global climate change, what will be the primary cause of rising sea levels?

Did you say melting ice caps and glaciers? Wrong. While it’s true the water from these sources will contribute to the problem, the primary cause of rising sea levels will be the thermal expansion of ocean water.

This problem of misidentifying the root cause of a problem can manifest itself in an equally problematic behavior worthy of unlearning: the idea that big problems always require big fixes.

It would be easy to begin this lesson with the famous story of how NASA engineers spent a million dollars to design a pen that worked in the zero-gravity conditions of outer space (when a humble pencil would have sufficed) or to re-tell the story of the young boy who, upon watching a group of firemen and engineers struggle to free a large truck that had lodged itself under a bridge by proposing that they begin by deflating the tires of the truck. Alas, both stories are urban legions.

Nevertheless, these antidotes have gained a near mythical status in today’s contemporary society because of their strong emotion appeal. Many people suspect a large number of solutions are “over-thought” and “over-engineered.”

What is not an urban myth is the fact that Ignaz Semmelweis helped save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women by getting doctors to engage in the simple act of washing their hands prior to assisting in the delivery of a new-born child. (Unfortunately, it required the medical community nearly two decades to unlearn their unhealthy habits and, even today, health care professionals still aren’t scrubbing their hands often enough.)

In the field of agriculture, it was the addition of ammonium nitrate—a cheap but effective crop fertilizer—that allowed the world’s farmers to feed a billion more people using the same amount of land; and it was the installation of the seat belt that saved the lives of thousands of motorists. This in spite of the fact that the device was initially ridiculed as “inconvenient, costly, and just a bunch of damn nonsense” by auto executives.

As implausible as it may sound, the problem of hurricanes may also require only a simple fix. As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner outline in Super Freakonomics it may soon be possible to prevent hurricanes (which, since 2005, have inflicted over $150 billion in damage on the U.S. economy) by deploying a few thousand “hydraulic heads” to help keep the ocean water cool in those areas where hurricanes begin. The estimated cost: $1 billion.

On the bigger problem of climate change, Levitt and Dubner also explain how “Budyko’s Blanket”—a massive chimney-like structure might pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere—and could theoretically cool the planet for a mere $250 million.

Now, to be fair, both “hydraulic heads” and “Budyko’s Blanket” may not work. But, the broader point is that when faced with big problems there is absolutely no reason why we must first look to “big answers”—such as moving the entire city of New Orleans or requiring every citizen in the world to modify his or her behavior and consume only products which use no fossil fuels or emit little carbon dioxide—as the solution. Often, big problems can be solved with small, easy-to-implement solutions—and that’s no myth.

Homework Assignment #12: Identify your company or organization’s largest problem. Break into two groups and have one group brainstorm solutions which cost no money while the second group consider only inexpensive solutions. Have the two groups come back together and share their ideas. Repeat the brainstorming session with the everyone in the room.

For extra credit, post your call for solutions to a broader community on the Internet. If necessary, offer a modest prize for the best practical solutions.

P.S. If you would like to read 38 additional “unlearning lessons,” consider picking up a copy of my new book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future.

Interested in another “unlearning” lesson? Check out this older post:


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