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The Key That Didn’t Work

Often, when things go wrong, we have an immediate hypothesis of what may have caused it. And we are convinced we know what the problem is

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I knew it was a problem waiting to happen.

But let me start from the beginning. I had a car an old Honda Accord which only seemed to get better with age. It worked well, except for a minor problem. The door lock wouldn’t open if you inserted the key. You had to use the remote. Not a big problem because the remote-operated key worked well. The wife kept telling me to get it set right, but unsure how much longer the car would remain with us, I kept pushing it off. She’d warn me that one day the remote will stop working and I would get stuck. But I never thought that day would come.

And it did. I drove out one morning with my visiting five-year-old nephew to a neighbourhood toy shop. It was a treat the kid was looking forward to, and so was I. We parked the car, got off and I pressed the remote to lock the car. But it wouldn’t lock. Tried again. And again. Pressed harder. No luck. Damn, I said to myself. Did it have to happen now? Should have listened to the wife and got the lock-and-key set right. What now? I couldn’t leave the car and go. The worried look on the kid’s face suggested he knew the toy-buying expedition was in jeopardy. I banged the remote key on my palm, tried blowing at it to get the dust away, but nothing worked. I tried calling the service centre for help, but the call remained unanswered.

And then, as I walked to the other side of the car, I noticed that the rear window was open. And because the window glass was down, the car wasn’t getting locked! That’s all. I rolled up the window and bingo - the remote worked. With the car safely locked, we made our way to the toy shop. In the end, it was a fun, memorable day for the little fellow. And as I reflected on what happened, it was a memorable day for me too.

Often, when things go wrong, we have an immediate hypothesis of what may have caused it. And we are convinced we know what the problem is. We don’t look for fresh evidence or data points on what may have caused it. We get locked into the idea that’s dominant in our heads. Our idea. We are quick to jump to conclusions. Imagine your team is working on a new product launch. It’s a fantastic product. Everyone’s excited. You are concerned though that at this price there may not be enough takers. You push for a lower price. You get over-ruled. The launch happens with a lot of fanfare. Six months later, when results aren’t quite what the business expected, you are sure you know why it’s not working. And you are not surprised. It’s the price, of course! 

Truth is, the problem might lie elsewhere. Maybe salespeople weren’t able to explain the features. Maybe service was an issue. Maybe customers don’t know about the product. But with your solid, internal hypothesis you aren’t giving the real reason a chance to present itself! 

Watch out. Next time you think you know what the problem is, pause. Keep an open mind as you look at what may have caused the problem.

Maybe someone’s left the car window open.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Prakash Iyer

Iyer is an author, speaker and leadership coach , and former MD of Kimberly Clark Lever

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