Think your way

Years ago Thomas J. Watson at IBM thought up a single word slogan: Think!.

Later Apple countered with Think Different!

I’ve always been fascinated with how people think.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is most people don’t think nearly as much as they think they do.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Actually in many ways it’s most likely an evolutionary adaptation that for the most part works.

For example, if a million years ago, you suddenly saw your ancestors all running away, you’d probably leap up and follow them without waiting to confirm there was a sabre-toothed tiger hot on their heels.  By not taking the extra second or two to think, you were able to pass on your genes.

But, in today’s highly evolved society, often that exact same reaction is not the right move.

I was reminded of this today getting off the train in New York City.  I tend to sit in the middle of the car (a lot of thinking has gone into this actually!)  So when I get up, I always have a choice of which way to go to get off the train.  Now, in a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter.  Since I’m equidistant from both ends of the car, it shouldn’t matter which way I go.  But often it does.  Today actually I was a little forward of middle.  I turned back to see more than 1/2 the car lined up behind me heading towards the rear of the car.  In part this was because the stairs from the platform towards the station are in that direction.  

Everyone was standing still.  I walked forward and was out of the car and to the stairs before the rear of the car had barely emptied.  I’m not sure what the hold up was. But the fact was, more than 1/2 the car apparently saw someone else get up, head towards the back so they did.  They never took the split second to look forward to see if that would be any faster.

Now you may be saying big deal. And you’re right. Getting off a train car a few seconds ahead of other people usually isn’t.

But, I’ve heard of similar things happening in more critical situations. How many times have you listened to the flight attendant or movie announcer point out fire exits and then promptly forgot about them?  How many folks make notes of all the exits in a building when they enter?

A study of fires and incidents in public facilities often shows that folks tend to do one of two things. 

One, they go where everyone else is going.  Again, this makes sense at a basic level.  There is the underlying assumption whether they realize it or not that they’re following the person in front of them because they assume the person who is moving must know something they don’t.  Of course it never dawns on them that the person in front of them may simply be moving in that direction because of the person in front of THEM.  The tragic side effect is that often you get crowding, trampling or simply wedges by the exit.  Often you’ll find a number of deaths occur near the most visible or most used exit to a facility.  In many cases this is due to wedges of people getting stuck trying to get through the door.

The other thing that people tend to do is head towards the exit they know about.  In fact this is most likely what causes the person at the front of the pack above to start moving in the direction they’re moving. 

Unfortunately, building codes generally assume that in an emergency, folks will exit all available exists (or some subset) in roughly equal numbers.  Experience shows in a crisis, this is rarely the case.  (I do believe this assumption is also starting to change and some building codes are changing to reflect that.)

(as an aside, one of the more remarkable survival stories I recall from 9/11 was a small group of people that essentially MADE their own exit by cutting a hole through a fireproof wall to another area where they could escape from.  So, sometimes consider making your own exit.)

Now, since I hate to end these passages on a somber note and because I want to relate this more to the IT industry, I’ll point out that often the successful businesses are not the ones that do what the heard does.  They do it differently. 

So, two exercises left to the reader.  Next time you go to a movie theater or restaurant, take a note of the exits and decide which one you will head to that you might have not noticed before.  Or if you’re stuck on a train or in a long line, stop to think if perhaps there’s another way people are overlooking.

The other one is more fun and one friends did in high school.  At the next group photo, pretend to see something and point to it.  See how many people follow along because obviously if you saw something, they must see something.  Then ask the last person who pointed what they were looking at.  I’ll bet in most cases you’ll hear “whatever it was they were looking at!”


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