The “Answer” is Not Always the Right Answer

I was listening to an interesting interview from CBC shared on Jordan Tinney’s blog discussing the use of “letter grades” in school.  This is an interesting topic because it is something that is so deeply rooted in tradition in our schools, and to change this, there will be a lot of challenging conversations.

In the podcast, one of the people calling in (at about 17 minutes), has an interesting comment:

“…these children will eventually graduate into a workplace where it doesn’t matter how hard you try, if you don’t have the right answer, you don’t have the right answer, and that’s all there is to it.”

This argument, that is often used about the “real world” and the workplace is not as simple as it seems.  Yes, people need to know information, but information changes and it is more important that we are able to think than simply know an answer.  Thomas Friedman has a great quote on what our “world” is looking for in his article about on “How To Get a Job at Google”:

“The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).” Thomas Friedman

The interesting thing about the article is that from Friedman’s research, “grades” or “test scores” are not a determining factor for success with the company:

Google had determined that “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.”

The culture at Google is known for many “soft skills” that cannot simply be graded, and are  more focused on a person’s ability to be able to think, lead, be creative, be flexible and adaptive (which are really tough to grade). According to Superintendent Chris Kennedy, the word “smart” doesn’t mean what it used to mean.

This is just not at Google.  Many organizations are focusing on people to think beyond the “answer” and go outside of the lines, to be honest, in fear of losing profits long term.

Here are two situations that I personally encountered where the “answer” wasn’t the right answer.

Just recently I was collecting stamps for a Starbucks specialty drink promotion over the Christmas break.  I was only needing one more to reach five and get a free drink, when I was informed that the promotion was over, and then they wouldn’t be handing out any more stickers.  When I said, “Aww that sucks..I already have four and just needed one more.” Immediately the barista went to her colleague, grabbed a stamp, and gave me the last sticker for a free drink.  She didn’t have to go to the manager, she just went to someone who had the stickers and gave me one.  That simple.

At Avis recently, they have a policy that if you bring the car back an hour after the designated time you are supposed to return the vehicle, the customer will be charged for an extra day.  Arriving late to the airport due to weather, I was 90 minutes late for my deadline, and without hesitation, the employee waved the fee although I had signed a contract stating the rules.  They didn’t have to talk to a supervisor or ask permission, they just knew what was best.

Now my circumstance with these two companies might not be the norm (although they have been with me).  Simply put in both cases the “answer” was not the “answer”, but was on a sliding scale dependent upon the circumstance.  Some facts are not “concrete” and change over time, but the ability to think is something that is needed consistently.

You might think that both of these cases were simply a matter of common sense, but in the past for many organizations, “common sense” was not allowed as it would lead to a loss of money.  If you look deeper though, it is only a short term loss.  Starbucks lost five dollars because they gave me a free drink when they didn’t have to and Avis lose fifty dollars by having an employee changing the “answer” on the fly, but long term they created loyalty because they were allowed to change what the “answer” was and think for themselves and do what is best in the situation.  Short term loss was worth long term gain.  More and more companies are understanding this and they need people that don’t simply know the answer, but can think for themselves and understand the best thing to do in any situation.

I like to think that both of these people that I encountered thought about the situation, put themselves in my situation, and thought about if the roles were reversed.  Barry Schwartz talked about how this type of empathy is crucial to “wisdom”:

“Most of us think about empathy as a “feeling” or an “emotion.” It is. To be empathetic is to be able to feel what the other person is feeling. But empathy is more than just a feeling. In order to be able to feel what another person is feeling, you need to be able to see the world as that other person sees it. This ability to take the perspective of another demands perception and imagination. Empathy thus reflects the integration of thinking and feeling.”

The “answer” is not always the right answer. The “real world” is expecting people to be able to think for themselves and not simply follow a manual, but to do what is best, sometimes in spite of what the answer tells you.

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