What To Do When What You're Doing Isn't Working


If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. But if you keep trying the same things that worked for you in the past, and they're not working for you now, you might never succeed. In this column, Eileen Strider shows you how to tap new sources for fresh approaches to tackling problems.

Most of the time, we do what we know how to do and everything turns out as we expect. Then there are the times when we try everything we know, but nothing seems to work. What do you do then?

First, we have to acknowledge that our actions are getting nowhere. Sometimes, we can see that our efforts are not working by the lack of results. Sometimes, others make us painfully aware that our actions are not effective. Whatever causes our awareness, the first thing that has to happen is to admit the problem. This awareness I call "the pain of recognition."

After recognizing that there's a problem, it is another step to fully accept the reality that our actions are not effective. This has to sink in before you can take steps to solve the problem. This is the hardest step for me. I don't want to accept this. We try to do a good job using what we know from our education, our training, and our experience. We count on these skills to work for us, and when they don't, it's disappointing and even depressing. It's also pretty stressful and worrisome not to know what else to try. The good thing about accepting the current reality is that it frees us up to look for something different to try. We are no longer restricted to using what we currently know how to do. We now have an opportunity—like it or not—to learn something new, as scary as that idea may be.

Now that we must be open to other possibilities, where can we look for some transforming ideas? Here are some things to try:

  • Comb through your own memories for ideas, especially around the fringes of your experience. Maybe you took a course once where you were introduced to some new techniques. At the time, maybe these techniques didn't seem very useful. But maybe in the present circumstances you see them with fresh eyes: in a context where they could work.
  • Think about who else you know who might have some helpful ideas. They may be professional contacts, personal friends, teachers, mentors, or consultants. Maybe you know they've dealt with similar issues. With their help, generate as many ideas as you can to deal with your particular situation. You may even decide to contract with this person to assist you in resolving your problem.
  • Look to other subject areas and industries for ideas. New ideas often come from arenas other than the one most familiar to us. For example, our work is software testing and quality assurance. Many other types of businesses perform testing of some kind and have quality levels they must meet. How do they do it? Often we focus on the differences in our work. Instead, let's look for ways to transfer successful techniques to our industry.
  • Problems very often have some kind of people-issues associated with them. Look for ideas in the fields of communication—the human kind—relationships, consulting, coaching, and counseling. These are rich sources for developing your understanding of what's going on for you and for others. These sources also can provide tools and techniques for dealing with problems.
  • Thumb through books, magazines, and newspapers on your bookshelves. Especially peruse books that don't seem like they are related to your current problem. Let your intuition be your guide. Maybe some ideas will jump off the pages. Even if they don't, the very act of looking through the books might help your mind generate new ideas. Do the same kind of search using the Web.

Try to generate at least three ideas. If you have only one idea, it may turn out to be a trap. If it doesn't work, you will still be stuck. If you have only two ideas, you may be faced with a dilemma regarding which one to use: a false either/or dilemma. If you have at least three ideas, you have more freedom of choice. Once you have a number of ideas, try some out on a small scale and see what happens. You won't really know if an idea will transform your situation until you try it. If one idea doesn't work, try another until you find one or more that works. In the process, not only will you deal with your problems; you will develop some new skills.

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