Don’t Give Up On The Obvious

I always get a kick out of watching my wife go about looking for lost items.  To her credit, like most of us, she always starts in the most obvious places.  If it’s lost keys, she looks in her purse. If it’s a lost cell phone, she’ll look on her desk.  If it’s lost sunglasses, she’ll look on a shelf by the front door.  Yep, she always starts in the most obvious place.   It’s what comes next that’s a bit perplexing.  She gives up on the obvious relatively quickly, and then chases after worst-case scenarios that require their own form of conspiracy theories to be plausible. The longer the search goes on, the more outlandish are the places that she hunts for the lost item.

I tend to lay low during these searches because I’ve learned that as these searches increase in size and scope, the greater are my chances of being blamed. At some point, I know that one of the developing conspiracy theories will involve me.  When I am finally accused and questioned, I always say the same thing: “Go back to where you think whatever you’re looking for mostly like is, and just look harder.”  Begrudgingly, she’ll march off to give it a try, and soon after, I will hear a relieved, and slightly embarrassed, “I found it!”

Sound familiar?  I’m sure it does, because most of us are guilty of the exact same behavior. It does bring up this question: Why are we so quick to give up on the obvious?  This peculiar phenomena isn’t limited to just car keys, cell phones, and sunglasses.  In fact, it tends to work its way into how we approach many of the things we do.

We don’t just give up on items; we give up on ideas. We don’t do this because we’re too busy or too lazy.  We do this because we underestimate the obvious.  We seem to expect the obvious to fight for our attention and command us to follow its apparent lead.  Unfortunately, although the obvious solutions clearly possess an impressive track record, they do not possess a voice.

Think about how many times you’ve given up on an idea because the idea seemed too simple or obvious. Perhaps it made so much sense to you that you were convinced its conclusion would be mocked, or maybe someone else has already thought of it. Familiarity has a way of lulling us into believing what’s obvious to us is obvious to everyone.  Not true.  One of my favorite examples of the success of a painfully simple solution was the “pigeon war” that took place in and around the County Office Building in White Plains.  After trying a myriad of ideas involving sophisticated chemicals, ultrasonic weapons, and a substantial budget to battle thousands of pigeons, the actual solution that worked beautifully cost less than $25.   A couple of plastic decoy owls were set up in strategic locations, and that was the end of the pigeon problem.  Once they had stumbled on the solution, in hindsight, it seemed painfully obvious.

Ironically, it seems to require a higher level of discipline to give the obvious the time and attention it requires. We have to fight the impulse to stop wasting our time chasing down the obscure and – far from obvious – solutions, particularlywhen we don’t immediately find what we’re looking for.

Ideas aren’t the only casualty when it comes to ignoring the obvious; it affects how we problem solve as well.  Having spent years teaching problem solving for Xerox, I can tell you firsthand that “obvious” is the most dangerous word in problem solving.  Obvious solutions to problems aren’t apparent to most people, because most people discount the obvious as if there’s a prize waiting for the solution that is the most out-of-the-box. If there really was a prize, it wouldn’t go to the most creative solution. It would go to the best solution.  Arthur Conan Doyle once said,

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

Remember to pay attention to the solutions or ideas that might seem simple to you, and whatever you do, don’t give up on the obvious!

Related: Turning Questions Into Conversations