Stop assuming!

When I give talks on opting out, one comment I sometimes get is yes fine but most people don’t have the luxury to dictate their terms or to create their own solutions for work. And that is certainly true. The people I’ve studied, and continue to study, are people who are privileged in many ways. Many have opted out of high-powered careers, which means they can actually afford to pause and breathe for a second and think about what they want to do with their lives (even though most also need to continue making a living). And they might work in areas that allow them the flexibility to create alternative solutions that work for them. Actually, I’m usually very quick to remind people of the danger of generalizing; that there is a whole population out there living different realities that one’s own.

But having said that, this comment still frustrates me a bit. I’m not trying to create an all-encompassing model for contemporary working life, nor am I claiming that my research is representative of the whole population. After all, I am the one always talking about creating different solutions for different people with different needs. But when people say that what I’m talking about is interesting but just not relevant or can’t be done for other people in certain professions, they are kind of making it impossible to even try. When things have been a certain way for as long as we can remember (and honestly, a lot of us have really short memories, so it might not be as long as we think) they become ‘truths’, and because they we think they are ‘truths’ we lose the ability to question them. But all ‘truths’ or practices were, after all, created by someone at some point and just because something has been done in a certain way for a relatively long time, doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do things, nor does it mean that it is the best way to do things. It is just the way we are used to.

This happened a few weeks ago when I was speaking to a group of women at a seminar about juggling work and family and returning to work after maternity leave. We had a fantastic discussion, and then someone commented that yes this is interesting but of course it wouldn’t apply to daycare personnel for example; they can’t create different solutions for work nor can they even dream about working on their own terms because they have to be there at certain times to carry out their work. And yes that is true, they have to be there in addition to sometimes being understaffed and often grossly underpaid. The nature of daycare work is obviously very different from managerial work and we can’t duplicate everything. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t borrow ideas nor does it mean we can’t create working environments where employees – even daycare workers – can feel like they have more control over their lives and their time. So when people say, ‘ah, but that is not possible’, we need to question that. Is it really not possible or do we just assume it isn’t possible? I’m willing to bet that nine times out of ten we’re just assuming, which is unfortunate because it effectively blinds us to any alternative ideas or solutions.

A colleague at the department where I work, Liisa Välikangas, who is an expert on innovation, talks about creative destruction. She argues that most people have a natural, built-in resistance to new solutions as long as the old ones still seem to work well enough, which makes it very hard for organizations to change. Creating something completely new is therefore much easier that changing existing structures. But in order to change we need to do this – that is, dismantle old structures – because otherwise there is no room for the new. So not only do we need to create, we also need to destroy.

And I’m arguing that we need some creative destruction when it comes to our assumptions. We need to say “Really? Why?” even in the most obvious situations. Because it is especially the obvious and the ‘truths’ we have been taught that are the most difficult to question, and the most important. And only if we can do this, can we help organizations and working cultures join the rest of us in the 21st century.

So every time you find yourself knowing or assuming, stop and question. And instead of assuming this is the way it has to be done, try living on the wild side for a second and assume that it doesn’t. And then see if new possibilities suddenly appear.

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