Letting go of shoulds – a key step to innovation

Red warning flag

In a fast-changing world our old assumptions may no longer hold true.

There are eight common ways this can happen, the second of which is called ‘shoulds’.

‘Shoulds’ happen when we expect that something should be a particular way or should be done in a particular way.

‘Should’ is a powerful word. It strongly urges us to do something but never quite explains why. If you want to avoid its hidden influence in your life, it is worth spending time to become aware of its power.

“You should do that” is clearly an instruction that you ‘ought to’, ‘have to’, or ‘must’ do a thing. It implies a duty, an obligation, or perhaps a correct way of doing things. But it doesn’t explain why we ought to do it that way. This creates a problem. Because saying, “We should invest in that project,” “She should do it my way,” “He should be more careful next time” — all of these give a clear direction, but none of them explains why. Taking action based on any of these statements is a step into the unknown.

Once we become aware of the word ‘should’ it becomes a very useful red flag for us: a warning sign to pause, look more closely, and ask ourselves whether an unconscious decision process or even a deliberate manipulation is happening. (“You should buy this product…”, “You should do what I say…”)

To make our own best decision we need to understand whether the recommended action will lead to the outcome we want. We need to ask, Why?: Why should I do that? Why should it be that way? Why should we think that way?

Sometimes we will get back an ‘output’ answer: “Because then the outcome is likely to be X,” or “Because this project will bring the mix of risk and reward we are looking for.” Then we can keep asking “Why?” again until we have created an unbroken link of understanding between the action we intend to take and the outcome we want to create.

But if we get back an ‘input’ answer — “Because the policy is…,” “Because the rules say…,” or “Because that’s what we always do…” — then this is just another set of ‘shoulds’. Policies, rules, and habits are just a shortcut: a rule of thumb that used to work in the past but might not reflect the way the world works now.

If you want to do a good job of leading yourself and other people through this time of change, it is important to understand the difference between the way the world is and the way the world should be. The two are not the same, especially in a time of change. And letting go of our expectations about the way the world should be is what enables us to find innovative solutions like Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify.

Before we can truly imagine how the world could be we first need to let go of how we think the world should be.

How often do you use the word ‘should’? How often do the people around you use it? If you dig deeper, what are you and they really saying?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By Luke Hoagland via StockPholio.net

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