The book Greg Ranstrom and I wrote is titled The Moment of Oh! though working on a complex problem like groundwater protection in Central Oregon, I’ve found that I’ve had many of those aha moments.  And sometimes it’s not even learning something new, it’s being reminded to use something you already know.

The situation:

The groundwater protection advisory committee that I co-chair had a work session on 2/28/13 that was attended by the advisory committee and about 15 interested citizens. The session focused on two types of systems that may be used to treat sewage. I know, it sounds exciting doesn’t it.  We had virtual presentations describing how a cluster system could be installed in a local neighborhood and how alternative ‘green’ solutions like composting toilets could be used to reduce groundwater contamination.

One of the biggest concerns for the local community, made up  of a large number of fixed income retirees, is the cost of a system. For 2 1/2 years we’ve been talking about the overall cost of a system for a specific homeowner. Currently, if my system breaks I must replace it with one costing $18,000. And who has $18,000 dollars to spend on a septic system? Talk about flushing money down the drain!

Now to the steps:

1. When you hear or read something you already ‘know’, pause and think “how could this be applied to my situation”.

During the cluster system presentation we were shown how it could be installed, at a cost of $15,000/household.  Ok, so that’s a bit better but I ask again, who has $15,000 lying around for a new septic system? The presenter went on to show how if the community could get a 30 year loan for the installation, each household would have to pay about $55 per month for the system. I’m not saying this is easy for people on a fixed income, but it’s a lot easier to afford a small monthly payment than a huge one time payment.

Monthly payments instead of a one time payment is hardly a flash of brilliance. I see it on advertisements on TV all the time. When I buy a car the salesperson doesn’t even talk about the sticker price, they talk about the monthly payment.

How often have you heard or said, “Tell us something I don’t know”. Sometimes we are so focused on a new idea that we miss how take something we already know and adapt it to the current situation.

It’s hard to image that it took me (and the committee) 2 1/2 years to realize this monthly payment approach applies and could reduce the resistance in the community and may even gain support for our recommendations.

How many other things that I ‘know’ could be applied to the current situation?  With many years of stuff in my brain, I can’t just think through all I know and find those ideas that will work. It’s about making new connections between the current situation and what I know.

And new connections require reflection and an open mind.

2. When you realize you’ve known something all along that could apply, don’t beat yourself up for not thinking of it before and replace it with Yeehaw! I have something that may help!

When I made the connection between monthly payments and the high cost of a septic solution, I didn’t feel smart. I felt stupid for not thinking of it before.  I believe the desire to not feel stupid (or the desire to feel smart)  is one reason we skip over many opportunities to apply what we already know.

If it takes 10 ideas to come up with a good idea and 10 good ideas to come up with an idea that can be used you have to have a lot of ideas to get to something that will work. If you label the first few ideas as stupid you could think I’m too stupid to come up with an idea and stop before you get to that really great idea.

As Thomas Edison said when asked about his 10,000 failed attempts to make a light bulb “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

3. Assertively integrate the idea with the current conversation.

When I suggested that we talk about the monthly payment instead of a huge lump sum. The response I got from some was “well of course that makes it sound better … now about these cluster systems”. The ‘tell me something I didn’t know response’ so let’s move on.  Taking the response as agreement, I added the monthly payment to the recommendation document.

It shouldn’t surprise me that when the answer is right under our nose (or in this case, been in our heads all along) we don’t see it, even when somebody shines a light on the idea.

In the future I plan to:

  1. When I hear something I already know. I will pause to consider how the idea can be applied to this situation
  2. When I have the eureka moment I will be happy that I have it now and not berate myself for not thinking of it sooner
  3. I will integrate the idea into the solution

I will also keep plugging away because as Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

John Blakinger is the co-author of the new  book The Moment of Oh! a guide to help communities make tough decisions.