Questioning Received Truths

Recently, I had the privilege of sitting in with a group of Kansas City elders as they discussed their concerns with the declining attendance at their respective senior centers. These wise folks are the advisors to the staff and leaders among their peers. They felt they offered decent programs, though admitted the luncheon fare was pretty uninspired. One old guy, only partly in jest, suggested, “We have a few dollars to work with. Why don’t we pay a few people to come in and play cards?”

I asked what brought them to their centers. To a person, their involvement was centered on creating a good program for those other old people. They didn’t come to get something for themselves, but to give to other people. I offered the modest suggestion that perhaps that’s a motivation that might drive others there. I suggested, “Why not think of a senior center as a place where elders come to give, not to take?”

A few weeks later I was pleased to hear that, following the discussion, one of the center directors organized a volunteer food bank event at her center and was thrilled at the participation.

Sometimes, turning something on its head produces surprisingly useful results. I believe this is a learned skill and that our organizations need to cultivate this practice. Actually, it may not be a learned skill as much as a process of unlearning – of deliberately abandoning our preconceptions in order to see things through a different lens. I remember the apocryphal tale of the moving truck that got stuck under the railroad overpass, stopping traffic for blocks and creating a minor crisis. Firefighters, traffic cops and engineers stood around trying to figure out how to extricate the truck from the bridge. “Concrete saws?” one asked. “No, levers and jacks”, another suggested. A shy little boy on his bike hovered around the margin of the crowd. Finally he stepped forward and asked, “Why don’t you let the air out of the tires?”

What can an organization do to incorporate this practice into the routine, to question received truths on a regular basis?

Listen deeply.

Observe closely.

Employ culture brokers (people who love to cross boundaries).

Exploit diversity (fight against monoculture).

Embrace the opposite.

Explore the absurd.

Play with words.

Wear your ideas inside out.

Humor yourself.

Develop kaleidoscopic vision.

Act the fool.

Play “what if…?”

In our field of aging studies and practice, a few examples come to mind:

“What if we saw not age but good food as a fundamental glue bringing people together?

               Mather’s Café

“What if we saw Alzheimer’s not as a disease but as a disrupted relationship?”

               The Memory Bridge

“What if we stopped talking about transportation and started talking about mobility?”

               Walkable, livable communities

“What if we stopped talking about disabled people and started talking about disabling environments?”

               Universal design

Got any of your own?