SEPs and SLAs

As we begin the journey of recovering control of our time lets divert for a moment and reach for our copy of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

Somebody Else's Problem (SEP)

The late and great Douglas Adams described the concept of the

Somebody Else's Problem Field (SEP).

In Douglas Adams' The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy Ford Prefect describes a 'Somebody Else's Problem' as:

An SEP is something we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem.... The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye.

The narration then explains:

The technology involved in making something properly invisible is so mind-bogglingly complex that 999,999,999 times out of a billion it's simpler just to take the thing away and do without it....... The "Somebody Else's Problem field" is much simpler, more effective, and "can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery."

This is because it relies on people's natural predisposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain.  In this case, the Starship Bistromath ("a small upended Italian bistro" with "guidance fins, rocket engines and escape hatches") has been hidden from the crowd watching a cricket match at Lord's by an SEP field. People may see it, but they take absolutely no notice of it due to the shielding mechanism that does not allow them to view the unique structures of the particular bistro.

Humour aside there is a sound psychological basis for the SEP field. Whether cognitive dissonance or optimism bias or the perfect solution fallacy we all have blind spots. And like any blind spot we have to change where we stand and how we view the problem to uncover the real dimensions of the challenge. 

Self Limiting Assumptions

In some cases we did actually notice the problem initially but because we did not think we could do anything about it - a Self Limiting Assumption - we devised workarounds that allowed us not to notice it any longer. This is even though the 'cost' of maintaining the workaround is still there in psychological and physical terms and is greater than if we had 'named' the problem and taken ownership of it until something was done about it. Whinging about 'bureaucracy' and not actually getting a grip and doing something about it is a classic example.

In other cases we are not equipped with the correct lens to see through the SEP field. We have no alternative reference points. Again we use Self Limiting Assumptions - helplessness, lack of curiosity, 'We are unique' and 'Not Invented Here' syndromes to blind us to the art of the possible. In this case we have to break out of our singularity and ask ourselves where we might find other analogous examples in other industries or organisations or how fresh eyes might see our challenges and possible solutions. We need to ask ourselves how we can best get a good 'triangulation' on the challenge. And we need to 'have a go'. Nothing ventured nothing achieved.

The solutions are remarkably simple:

  • Name the problem out loud and keep it firmly in view - own the problem. 
  • Share the problem - rally others to your cause. It is easier to tackle this in company rather than alone. 
  • Ask yourself how other people in other organisations might tackle this successfully? You are not unique and there are 1000's if not millions of people who have been faced with the same or analogous challenges. 
  • Have a go. Do something about it..what will your first PDSA cycle be? Once you have got through three of four PDSA cycles you will be surprised about how you will feel more in control of the context rather than vice versa. Once you break the chains of SLAs and bring the SEPs into clear focus then you are well on the way to feeling a damn site better about yourself.

But of course you might be really happy on your wheel so why bother...