Barking up the wrong tree

In his book What’s Your Problem, Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg argued that in order to enhance our problem-solving skills, we must develop a reframing mindset. This means learning to look at a problem from a different angle. Not just to adopt a new perspective, but a new way to frame the issue. Not only a new frame, but a new tree to direct our attention to. We’ve been getting too used to barking up the wrong tree. We’ve been grabbing the wrong end of the stick.

It’s a great and mobilising idea and one that has the potential to inspire new approaches and to bring forth a long-neglected quality of an effective leader and innovator, namely humility.

But it’s also a bit unfair. Barking up the wrong tree has its virtues. First, it brings us closer to the knowledge that it’s the wrong tree. It’s unlikely we’ll get the correct approach right unless we know which ones are wrong. Most famously, Thomas Edison reportedly said that he found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb, while he only needed to find one way to make it work. Edison had been barking the wrong trees. And this was the only way for him to find the right one.

Secondly, there might be nothing wrong with the tree, but with the barking. The solution might be the right one for a different problem. Edison set out to make a bulb, but he may have ended up making something else. For a historian or a scientist, for example, the evidence orients the theory. We need the humility to adjust our view in the light of the available data, not the other way around. Perhaps to stop barking and to start howling.

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