Once in a while a story comes along that cuts through the chatter, clutter and cynicism that seem to permeate our collective conversation. These are the stories that keep alive a picture of what we can be when we're at our best together.
Such a story came along on August 6 in Perth, Australia, when a commuter caught his leg in the gap between a train and the station platform. After unsuccessful attempts by a few employees to free the leg by working on the person, all the passengers banded together in an extraordinary collaborative effort that freed his leg. In a little more than ten minutes, the man walked away unharmed, the passengers re-boarded and the train went on its way.
The brief, edited footage shown on most news channels is exhilarating and uplifting. However, as I watched the full 17 minutes of the official transit authority video, which is silent, I realized the episode captures something else as well. In a few compressed minutes, it beautifully illustrates the underlying dynamics of group problem solving, creative thinking, collaboration and transformation. Here’s a play-by-play from the perspective of those of us at Overland Resource Group who do this type of work not only for a living, but as if it were a calling.
People are going about their business, moving toward their destination. Then something happens; in this case, it’s an accident that puts a commuter in peril and halts the transportation flow. A man's leg is stuck. It's a problem... for everyone.
Another commuter alerts the transit employees and for about 7 minutes, officially designated problem-solvers make various attempts to free his leg by methods we would all expect-- like shifting his weight, pulling harder, etc. As in organizations everywhere, there are people who are subject matter experts—those tapped to solve problems; to create solutions. In this case, there are clearly moments when the official responders are stumped and then re-engage to try something else. There's nothing wrong with this. They've followed the traditional patterns of thinking. The ideas are probably valid ones.
But they don't work.
On the platform people mill about. Some provide suggestions or try to help in some way. Others seem to want to help, but aren't sure how. Still others are merely bystanders and gawkers. Just like typical workforces when a problem hits, diverse levels of engagement are at play.
Then at a little over the seven-minute mark, something special happens. A woman from the crowd makes a mental leap– what we call Breakthrough thinking. She seems to surmise, “If you can't move the man, maybe you can move the train.” It's a whole new way of looking at the situation. She gestures toward the train to suggest that tipping it away from the platform might create enough room to free the man's leg. It's easy to imagine the silent or spoken responses to that suggestion: "Lady, it's a TRAIN. There's no way to tip this thing.” Yet one of the officials/leaders is open enough to take up the idea. He begins to put a plan in motion by disembarking the passengers.
Then about 11 ½ minutes in, one hand goes up on the side of the train... and then another, and another until nearly everyone on the platform has found a spot on the side of the train to apply some force. For a few glorious moments hundreds of heads, hands and hearts are all moving as one. Through a series of concerted pushes, the people tilt the train cars enough for the man to free his leg. The crowd claps and cheers. People re-board, the man is escorted away relatively unharmed, and is able to take the next train. The world goes on its way.
To engage in labor-management collaboration and dramatic business improvement requires that people abandon their traditional patterns of thinking about problems, about what is possible and about each other. It requires consideration of actions and pathways that may sound crazy or discomfiting. It requires being open to ideas that may come from the least expected source. And, it requires that each person commit 100% of themselves to the common good. When that happens, Breakthrough thinking creates an environment in which truly amazing outcomes ensue. Expectations are surpassed; norms are shattered, new realities are realized. Everyone wins.
On a train platform in Perth it lasts less than 17 minutes. In the work we do, it can last for an organization's lifetime.
See the ABC News story for both a short and long version of the episode.
Marc Bridgham is a member of the Consulting Consortium at Overland Resource Group and President/CEO of The Triskelion Group. Founded in 2002, The Triskelion Group focuses on deliberately and effectively igniting the combined forces of Commitment, Creativity and Community that live within any organization, and aligning those forces to achieve rapid and dramatic improvement in business results. Marc can be reached at email@example.com.