That niggling feeling at the back of your brain. The twinge in your gut. That persistent feeling that something’s not quite right. The one that you just can’t quite put your finger on it.
I’m sure you know exactly the feeling I’m talking about.
And it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot. In part because it’s been with me a lot lately. And it’s very seldom steered me wrong. Although my consciousness overriding that feeling has steered me wrong a great many times in the recent past.
I suspect the reason I’ve been feeling it a lot is that the end of the year (as I’ve already noted) was pretty chaotic. I was tired. I was ready for a break. I was stretched in terms of capacity and capability about as far as it’s reasonable to do so, and still say—mostly—sane. So I dealt with the urgent and screamingly important, and consciously let a few things slide.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s entirely reasonable to consciously let something go. It’s an entirely different thing to unconsciously overlook it.
A case in point: I was leaving my office in Toronto late last year to catch a plane for a ten day trip. As I locked the office door, I felt that twinge. I did quick check of the usual suspects. Phone, keys, wallet, Nexus card: all present. I had a briefcase. I had my carry-on. So I figure I’m good, and off I go.
Driving out of the parking garage, the twinge is still there. Mental inventory, and I figure I’m still good. Anything I’m missing, I can buy in Edmonton. So off to the airport I go.
It wasn’t until I got to the airport, checked in and cleared security that I figured out what was going on. Sitting in the departure lounge, coffee in hand, I open my briefcase so I can catch up on email. And realize that thing I was missing was my laptop.
My flight leaves in an hour. My office is 30 minutes away. It’s rush hour. There’s also a postal strike, it’s coming up to Christmas, and the couriers are swamped. So couriering my laptop is also not necessarily an optimal thing. The reality is that my laptop is staying where it is, and I’m about to find out just how much I can get done with my tablet on a 10 day trip (spoiler alert: quite a lot, but it’s not easy and it’s certainly not efficient).
The moral of this story, and the point of this article: that little, niggling voice is very rarely wrong. There’s a reason it’s there. It’s a by-product of our reptilian brain, that was designed to keep us alive in a world where sabre-tooth tigers saw us as tasty morsels. While the threats that we face have declined in consequence considerably, that little voice hasn’t gone away.
Nor should it, in my view. It performs a very useful function but it’s not one we often recognize, consider or consciously give value to. Which is—in my view—a bit of a problem. It’s been argued that consciousness uses only about 0.01% of our congitive capacity. Of the 100 billion brain cells between our ears, our conscious capacity is using about 10 million of them. The rest is unconscious. So who’s really driving the bus here?
In other words, a lot of our processing ability is outside of our conscious control. Our brain constantly offers up messages that it might think are relevant; the real question is whether or not we actually listen to them. That niggling voice is part of our unconcsious processing. When we hear it, it’s because our brains are trying to tell us something. The fundamental question is whether or not we are prepared to listen and whether we can figure out what the little voice is actually saying.
My forgotten laptop is a case in point. I felt the twinge of “something’s wrong” at the door as I was locking it. I did a mental inventory standing there. I didn’t go back into the office. If I had—if I had done a simple sweep of the rooms—I would have seen the laptop. Instead, my conscious tried to reassure my unconscious that there wasn’t really anything to worry about. Which wasn’t really the case; I just hadn’t stretched my imagination enough to figure out what I might be missing.
While this is one example, it’s one of many. There are the times that I’ve forgotten my house keys. Or gone out to the garage without my car keys. When I’ve left my phone in the car. Or in the coat I’m no longer wearing. Or in the office in the building that I’m rapidly driving away from. And while all of those bend towards the practical end of the spectrum of making sure you have your life’s essentials with you, that’s not the limit of what our cognitive abilities provide.
That same niggling feeling works just fine in the context of our work lives as well. And that is perhaps where we most need—and least consider—what the voices inside of our head are telling us.
Another case in point, this time work related. Working on an analysis for a client, I got an updated view of financials for their planned project. I did a quick scan, and noticed that there were a few specific projects where the estimates were presented differently than they had in the past. The project costs were the same, but how the corresponding payments were identified was different.
As I said, it was a quick scan. The numbers came from Finance. I presumed they’d done their analysis and review, and confirmed that what they were presenting was correct. And I didn’t need the numbers right away, so I resolved to go back and look in more depth later when I had more time. A few days later, as I was doing my part of the analysis, the issue re-emerged. The numbers still seemed to be wrong. I followed up to clarify (mid-morning on a Friday). By the end of the day, I finally got a response that was essentially, “Yeah. This is a problem. And I’ve been trying to figure out all day how it got created and how to fix it. I won’t be able to get back to you on this until next week.”
This wasn’t my mistake. It wasn’t my problem to fix. But it’s something I had noticed and twigged on earlier. At the time, I rationalized it as me not understanding or having a full picture of what Finance was presenting. What later emerged is that the specific projects that I honed in on in my cursory review were where there was a problem. And fixing that problem was far larger than anyone imagined it was going to be. If I had mentioned—or questioned—the basis of the numbers earlier, it could have been followed up earlier. Not doing that meant delays and re-work.
Again, this is an illustration. But it’s not an isolated one. How often do we see something, question it, and then rationalize the question away as, “they must have reviewed this and confirmed it was correct?” How many times do we rely on others to do their work, only to discover that something’s missing? Something with significant consequences?
Where this gets problematic in a work context is that we compartmentalize, we trust and we don’t want to be the person that is constantly second-guessing everyone else. And that’s not to say that we shouldn’t trust, that we shouldn’t be aware of roles and responsibilities and that we should always question and second-guess. When that little niggling voice emerges, though, I would suggest that we need to hear what it has to say and what it might mean.
What we do with that insight is another problem. It’s one thing when we question the voice, discover something that we’ve missed, and go off to merrily finish what we had started. It’s another thing when the voice tells us what someone else missed. What they’re responsible for. What they might not have seen.
In particular, it’s a challenge to explain what our concern is—and why we have the concern. Most of us are more than a little bit uncomfortable in an at-work context saying that while we can’t put a finger on it, something feels wrong. Just the language—using the word “feel”—is enough to send some people screaming in the other direction. Often, we don’t want feelings in business—we want logic, and facts, and rational arguments.
The problem is that sometimes we don’t quite know how to make those rational arguments. One of the more famous examples of this came in 1986. An organization was about to proceed with a product launch. An engineer wasn’t comfortable with the specifications. More specifically, they were concerned that in certain circumstances where the product was exposed to cold, the product could fail. But they couldn’t prove it to the organization responsible for the launch.
In this particular situation, the engineer was a gentleman by the name of Roger Boisjoly. The organization he worked for was a company named Morton-Thiokol. They made solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program. The product in question was the space shuttle Challenger, and it was about to be launched on the coldest day in the history of the shuttle program—by a significant margin.
As we all know with the benefit of hindsight, there was a problem with the o-rings in the solid rocket boosters when exposed to cold temperatures. While we know that now, Boisjoly only suspected it then. There had been problems with the o-rings in previous launches. They had failed, but hadn’t yet done so catastrophically. Boisjoly had a gut feel that temperature was a factor. He just couldn’t prove it. In a teleconference with NASA launch officials, he strongly and passionately argued to defer the launch because of the potential of the o-rings to fail. They didn’t like that message, didn’t want to hear it, ultimately overrode it, and proceeded with the launch (supported by executives within Morton-Thiokol, who overrode Boisjoly).
We all know how that tragedy played out. But here’s the thing that stands out for me. There were thousands of systems on the space shuttle. Hundreds of safety checks, where responsible staff needed to give a green light and confirm it was safe to launch. There’s a lot that can go wrong, and space is a risky business to start with.
But 24 hours before the launch, in this particular instance, NASA and Morton-Thiokol were arguing over the exact issue that ultimately brought down the shuttle. It wasn’t a general concern about cold. It was a very specific question of “will temperatures this cold cause this specific piece to fail?” Boisjoly felt it could. He had a hunch, but he couldn’t factually make the case at the time. He had a gut feel that there was a problem, but lacked the logic, reasoning and statistical back-up to press his case home.
Not every decision we make has the same life-or-death consequences as the launch of a space shuttle. We don’t always have lives on the line. We don’t always have the future viability of our organization on the line. Sometimes we do, but not always. But that’s not the point. Our little voice works when the stakes are big, and when they are small. The question isn’t the consequences associated with the decision. The question is whether we’re prepared to listen to the little voice, and give it credence.