To be a better problem-solver - change your perspective

  • 6 min read

Many years ago, I arranged with the local Flying Farmers organization to fly over several counties in southwestern Ontario. Growing up and farming there, I knew the area between Chatham and London well. Once up in the air, however, I was surprised to discover that the perspective from above was so different than the majority of the flight I had no idea where I was. It was a small cluster of counties that I thought I knew like the back of my hand, but I’d never seen this perspective before.

What we often perceive as hard facts may actually be perceptions we’ve created from our very limited frame of reference

This may explain why nearly every operation I’ve ever visited across Canada has an aerial photograph of their farm on the wall. The farmer is likely familiar with every square inch of their property, but a bird’s eye view provides a very different perspective.

Views shaped by tiny frame of reference

There’s a lesson to be learned from that photo. I think most of us just assume that the way we see our circumstances is just the way it is. We think we’re seeing the facts and we make choices based on that. Taking a ride in that plane, however, made me realize that our perspective of how things are can be shaped by a relatively small set of experiences. In fact, it’s a bit scary to think that my view of reality is shaped by a very tiny frame of reference.

What we often perceive as hard facts may be perceptions we’ve created from our very limited frame of reference. Here’s an example.

Most of us plan our lives around the concept of a day. Everyone knows that a day has one sunrise and one sunset, 24 hours. That’s a day. These are the facts and it’s been that way since the beginning of time. Really?

Many of you already know that these are perceptions based on where we live. If you live at the North Pole, the sun does not rise and set once a day. It rises and sets once a year. Living there would change your perception of what a day is. If you lived on the International Space Station, 350 km above the earth, the sun rises and sets 15 times a day. A person living there, of course, would have a completely different perception of what a day is.

These may seem like odd examples, but they help us be aware that we all see the world through filters, which means we don’t necessarily see the entire picture of our circumstances.

Know your blind spot

Did you know that our eyes have actual blind spots? It’s a small part of the retina that does not give you visual information. There are simple experiments you can do to find your blind spot. When you locate it, you can look right at an object and not see it. Most of the time you don’t notice your blind spot because your brain automatically fills in this area with image information from around the blind spot.

We all have blind spots in our thinking too. This limitation while running a farm business, for example, can seriously hamper our ability to solve problems or to seize opportunities. That’s why we often speak about the value of peer advice or even taking a vacation. It’s all about finding ways to see your situation with fresh eyes.

Simple solutions

The value of a different perspective hit me one day when I was racing in a triathlon. I’ve always had trouble swimming straight in open water. No matter how much I focus on proper swim technique, I almost always veer slightly to the right. A couple hundred metres into the swim portion of the race, I was already off course.

Two of my daughters watched as I struggled to navigate the waters of the Welland Canal. My older girl is a bit of a camera buff so she was taking lots of pictures. After the race, we reviewed the pictures and immediately it became obvious why I was swimming off course. It took about a minute of practice in the pool the next day to implement the changes needed to fix my stroke.

Problem solved. I had worked on this issue for months adjusting from my perspective with little success. Seeing my swim stroke through the eyes of a camera changed my tiny frame of reference. The solution in this case became immediately apparent, simply because the perspective changed.

Detailed analysis can be perfectly wrong

During World War II, Allied planes often returned from battle badly damaged by enemy fire. Statistician Abraham Wald examined hundreds of damaged planes. He initially concluded that the fuselage and fuel systems were much more likely to be damaged by enemy fire than the engine, the cockpit or the tail.

As a result of this initial finding, the military leadership wanted to reinforce these heavily damaged areas with more armour. Wald’s data showed, however, that this approach was already being used and it was not bringing planes and pilots back safely, so Wald decided to change his perspective of the problem.

Rather than focus on the damaged parts of the planes, he decided to examine the parts of the planes that were not hit. Immediately, it occurred to him: if all the planes returning had the engine, cockpit and tail intact, then the planes that didn’t return must have been hit in the engine, cockpit or tail. His conclusion to protect the parts that don’t have damage on the returning planes was unconventional, but it saved countless lives. A change of perspective led to the solution.

What can you do?

If you’ve been part of your farm operation for a long time, you know how routines over time can challenge your objectivity, possibly even preventing you from seeing a fresh point of view. So here are four things you can do to improve your perspective and ultimately become a better problem solver.

  1. Make it a habit to ask others’ opinions. Get a wide range of views of your situation so you can see an issue from as many perspectives as possible. Ask your employees their opinions. How would your competition see this problem? What about a minister, a professor, a politician, even your mom? Peer advisory groups are perhaps the best way to gain this kind of fresh perspective.
  2. Change your routine. If you always do things in the same order, in the same way, then change it up. If you go to meetings and always sit in the same seat next to the same people, then next time change it up and sit in a different seat.
  3. Walk when you need to think. Many historical greats did their best thinking while walking.
  4. Change your view. Rearrange your office occasionally. Replace the art on the wall and the pictures. The goal is to provide that cognitive bump in the road so when you walk into your familiar setting, you don’t automatically see everything the way you’ve always seen it.

Your view of opportunities and challenges in the farm business can be severely restricted by a very limited frame of reference. One sunrise and one sunset a day is all you know. When you embrace the value of a change in your perspective, and then take action to improve your perception, you have engaged in an elite leadership action that will make you a better problem solver.