How to ‘abandon the dead horse.’

You never get the new results you want from the activities you like. (If this weren’t the case, you would have gotten these results already.) People generally fall in love with approaches that have given them the best results in the past. However, since the world is constantly changing, what has gotten you here may no longer get you there.

When faced with a new problem, your existing thinking patterns keep spewing out old solutions, before you realize they have become ineffective and obsolete. Think of the reflexive focus on cost cutting when companies hit a rough spot, or politicians who by default love to throw more money at problems. This thinking flaw is called the dead horse approach to solving problems.

Recently, while working on high performance execution with a successful, yet somewhat dysfunctional management team, I used this short story about a dead horse to let them reflect on their own behaviors.

One day, a company catering to tourists, using horse and carriage for sightseeing, found that its only horse had died overnight. The management team convened and in a special meeting discussed what to do.

  • The chief financial officer pointed out that a dead horse has a lower cost of ownership than a living horse. He therefore requested to use only dead horses from now on.
  • The human resource director proposed a new bonus incentive program for the horse to increase its performance.
  • The operations director ignored the dead horse, since dead was not listed as a viable entry for a horse in the SAP system.
  • The patent attorney wondered whether the dead horse could be turned into a trademark.
  • The legal officer argued the meaning of dead.
  • The research director concluded more tests were required to determine if the horse was really dead.
  • The communications officer considered the situation a great opportunity to launch a social media campaign to proudly highlight the merits of dead horses.
  • In the end, after listening to these ideas, the CEO decided to form a committee to study the subject of dead horses.

There is a fine line between admirable persistence and mindlessly sticking to old solutions and familiar approaches, when a new approach is called for. When will you finally abandon the dead horse?

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