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The Streetlight Effect

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When there are problems with your business, searching for solutions in the obvious places seldom results in real and lasting change or improvement.

There's an old story about a policeman who encounters a man that's had a bit too much to drink. The man is on his hands and knees patting the sidewalk under a streetlight. The policeman says, "What are you doing?" The man replies, "I'm looking for my keys." The policeman joins him on the sidewalk and helps search for the lost item. After a minute or two, the policeman looks over and asks, "Are you sure this is where you lost them?" The man looks over and says, "No, I lost them in the park.” The policeman asks incredulously, "Then why are you looking for them here?!?" The man responds, “Well, this is where the light is!”

This story illustrates a phenomenon called The Streetlight Effect which is a description of a human observational bias: We tend to search for answers where the process of seeking is easy, rather than where the answers may actually lie. We're inclined to accept easy solutions because, well, they’re easier!

What in the world has The Streetlight Effect got to do with the construction business? Contractors, as well as leaders in other industries, frequently fall prey to this phenomenon. Where we've seen it manifest itself most in our 30+ years of dealing with the construction industry is when we get calls from distressed contractors. They’re having trouble with falling margins, inattention to safety, a lack of organizational direction, poor employee performance, bad team dynamics, troublesome family relationships, etc. Often, they describe quite a laundry list of problems. As they continue, I think to myself, "Wow! These folks really have challenges! They must be eager for a novel approach and a new way of addressing their problems!"

A few weeks later, we get a follow-up call, and the contractor states matter-of-factly, “My CPA, or lawyer, or brother-in-law, or best project manager is going to work on these issues for us, and we think we can get a handle on things utilizing internal resources."

Whenever I hear that kind of rationalization, I'm reminded of an insightful quote often incorrectly attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What makes any normally levelheaded contractor think that people who are either part of the problem or who have in the past been unable to identify and resolve the problems are going to suddenly develop magical powers enabling them to wave their magic wands and make all the bad things disappear?

You generally cannot achieve real and lasting change or improvement in a construction organization by working within the system, by working with the very same people that have helped you get where you are. To achieve lasting change, it takes different perspectives and new ways of looking at things. It takes someone or some catalyst that's going to get you out of your comfort zones. Sometimes it even takes disruption of your organization to get the permanent improvements that you want.

The people that you've relied on to get you where you are at this moment are hardly the people to get you settled into that new, better place. Ultimately, it takes a great deal of courage to look outside the light, but that's just what you must do.

Wayne Rivers is the president of The Family Business Institute, Inc.  FBI’s mission is to build better contractors!  Wayne can be reached at 877-326-2493, [email protected], or on the web at www.familybusinessinstitute.com

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