Life is full of problems. Problems that seem impossible to solve. Personal problems. Family problems. Problems at work, in our neighbourhood, and in the world at large.
Albert Einstein reportedly said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
So what is the alternative way of thinking that can help us with problem solving? Stephen R Covey calls it the 3rd Alternative.
Most conflicts are two-sided. The 1st Alternative is my way, the 2nd Alternative is your way. By synergizing, we can go on to a 3rd Alternative – our way, a higher and better way to resolve the conflict.
People with the 2-Alternative mind-set see only competition, never cooperation; it’s always “us versus them”. 2-Alternative thinkers often can’t see other people as individual human beings – only their ideologies. They don’t value different points of view, so they don’t try to understand them.
Those who get past 2-Alternative thinking and go on to the synergy mind-set are rare but highly influential, creative, and productive. They are the paradigm shifters, the innovators, the game changers. If we want to join them, to go on to 3rd Alternative thinking, we have to shift our paradigm in four significant ways.
- I See Myself
The first paradigm is about seeing myself as a unique human being being capable of independent judgement and action. I’m more than the “side” I favour in a conflict. I might share certain beliefs or belong to certain groups (e.g. my family, religion, culture, company etc.), but none of them completely define me or predetermine my thoughts. I choose my own “story”.
If I truly see myself, I also see my cultural tendencies and biases and am aware of my own ‘blind spots’. However I do not see myself as a victim of circumstances. Instead I see myself as a creator of the future. While I do have ‘blind spots’ I also have boundless potential.
- I See You
The second paradigm is about seeing others as people instead of things. I see you as a whole human being unlike any other, a person of innate worth, endowed with talents, passions, and strengths that are irreplaceable. You are more than your “side” in a conflict. You deserve dignity and my respect, even though I might disagree with some of your views.
- I Seek You Out
This paradigm is about deliberately seeking out conflicting views instead of avoiding or defending yourself against them. Instead of seeing your different viewpoint as a threat, I avidly seek to learn from you. If a person of your character and intelligence differs from me, I need to listen to you. I listen empathically until I genuinely understand you.
“I Seek You Out” starts with the principle that truth is complicated and that everybody likely has a little slice of it. No one has it all. Therefore it’s not only natural, but essential for people to have different opinions. A world without differences would be a world of sameness where no progress is possible.
- I Synergize With You
The last paradigm is about going for a solution that’s better than anyone has thought of before, rather than getting caught up in the cycle of attacking one another. Once we understand each other fully, we are in a position to go for synergy, to find solution that is better than anything we’ve come up with individually. Synergy is rapid, creative, collaborative problem solving.
If we start with the right mind-set, we can get to synergy by following four steps:
- Ask all participants a question: “Are you willing to go for a solution that is better than any of us have come up with yet?”
- Define criteria of success: “What would better look like?”
- Create possible 3rd Alternative solutions by prototyping, brainstorming new frameworks, turning our thinking upside down. Suspend judgement for that time to allow the group to experiment with radical possibilities.
- Arrive at synergy or 3rd Alternative. We know the 3d Alternative by the excitement in the room, a burst of creative dynamism. We know the 3rd Alternative when we are no longer interested in old fights and old assumptions. We know the 3rd Alternative when we feel inspired by it. The 3rd Alternative is not an incremental improvement, but a fundamental breakthrough, a quantum leap forward, that meets our criteria of success. Synergy means everyone wins.
From “The 3rd alternative” by Stephen R Covey
- The toxic virus of the mind: US vs. THEM
- The power of constructive disagreement
- Salad Bowl of Multiple Identities