Glue traps and sticky situations (at work)

As I loaded my washing machine a few months ago, I saw something big scurry across the white brick wall. Both fascinated and grossed out, I watched a centipede-like creature race across the wall and onto the basement floor. It was about an inch long, and had at least 20 legs.

My fascination gave way to my repulsion, and I bought a box of sticky traps, feeling a sense of triumph as I caught one of these mysterious bugs in the yellow glue. When I returned to the basement, another had found his friend. Then another. And another.

I set another trap, where four or five more bugs found their way to the glue. Then it got kind of depressing, and I had a weird thought.

Work is kind of like that – full of sticky traps.

And like these Basement Bugs, we stumble into these traps unsuspecting and oblivious. Sometimes we blindly follow the crowd. Or worse, we go along willingly, even knowing there’s a trap.

The more complex, interdependent, and new our work is, the greater the number of traps. Simply put, most of the places where we work weren’t built for complex, interdependent, unpredictable, and new.

It’s hard to consciously correct for all the sticky situations we can find ourselves in. We call them blind spots for a reason. But you’ll never maneuver around what you can’t see. And you can’t get out of the trap if you don’t know you’re in it.

These 8 traps can keep us stuck – especially doing anything new

1. Waiting for clarity or direction.

Let me be blunt: It’s not coming.

If someone had more direction, they’d have told you by now. So please stop waiting.

Make a best guess where you think your works needs to head, who you need to engage, how your work ladders up to short and long-term strategies. Combine your guess with other people’s guesses. You’ll be right enough.

And if you’re not, someone in the know will help you course correct. No big deal. Just thank them for filling in the gaps and pointing you in the right direction.

Then keep going.

2. Judging early learning.

We judge new projects and ideas through the lens of mature businesses and scaled organizations. And we give up on the early learning, thinking: “It’s not working.”

Of course it’s not. Yet.

Imagine a baby who’s figured out how to get up on all fours and rock back and forth, but not quite crawl. Think of the millions, even billions, of new neural synapses that made that possible. Now imagine being annoyed he’s not crawling, and then assuming he’ll never crawl. I’m not saying a few management consultants wouldn’t make this leap. But we know it’s nonsense.

Real learning is asymmetrical and dynamic. We’re wiring and re-wiring, making new connections all the time. We learn by stumbling. And while organizations and people will continue to judge and constrain a lot of learning, please don’t limit yours.

3. Pivoting prematurely.

The early days of anything new feel small because they are small. We lose interest, get bored, or become frustrated that work isn’t moving fast enough.

These knee-jerk judgments overlook something basic: in between a new idea and a new thing are a thousand steps (at least). Small, thoughtful pivots will get you out of a lot of sticky situations. Big, early pivots will send you into a new trap.

4. Paralysis.

There’s so much noise and anxiety, coupled with competing short and long-term direction. Sometimes we feel like we can’t move. Thankfully, however, time exists so that things don’t happen all at once.

So when you’re feeling stuck, don’t try to unpack the noise, angst, and conflicting direction. Instead, just ask: What’s next?

5. Problem-solving alone.

We’re conditioned to prove our problem-solving abilities. But the best problem-solvers know something crucial: creative solutions are rarely never vertical. And when we try to solve messy problems within our silos, we solve the wrong problems. Both the mess and confusion are signs we’re missing something. And they point the way to getting unstuck.

Nothing new comes from a silo. And nothing fresh comes from solely from what we already know. New ideas come from combining lots of ideas. So borrow from everyone.

6. Complicated narratives and abstractions.

Why did I start this article talking about bugs and glue traps? Because it’s weird enough to remember. And because you’re way more likely to see traps than if I droned on about cognitive bias.

The truth is we seldom advance anything new based on logical arguments alone. So tell a story.

7. Applying the same rules for new things as old things.

This trap is extra sticky. And it includes measurement and process. In the absence of visible alternatives, we apply mature metrics and business processes to new things. Then we wonder why the new things don’t work. In the early days of anything new, simple metrics work best – and too much process (or governance) will only slow you down.

8. Boredom.

The early days of anything new can be super tedious. And the temptation is great to look for anything more stimulating, even when that means doing something dumb. But there’s a big difference between inertia and boredom. So the question to consider is this: am I really stuck, or am I just bored?

As for my fuzzy friends?

My satisfaction seeing these stuck (and dead) creatures quickly waned. It turns out I don’t really enjoy setting traps. Minnesota basements are going to have bugs in July, especially in forty-year old houses. And they’re still gross. But life is sticky enough for a Basement Bug. For us too. No need to add glue to the mix.

carolyn solares
I help people re-wire and do new things.
Yes, at work.

Work with me at murphymerton.
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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash