Stop Asking “Can We?”; Start Asking “Should We?”


“The 15 minutes…are those consecutive minutes?” asked Theresa, a Paulding County board of education member.

Theresa was wrestling with the problem staring her in the face. The Georgia Department of Health requires schools to classify anyone who has been within 6 feet of one another for longer than 15-minutes as a “close contact.” If you fall into that label, then if someone tests positive for COVID, all close contacts need to be notified and quarantine.

“Yes,” Eric replied to her question.

“I want to throw out a suggestion there. If we could rotate in the classroom, 14 minutes, switch your chairs. That way we could be in compliance.”

Theresa was solving a problem. Disastrously. Without any degree of perspective or understanding, some might say. But she was attempting to solve a problem. To find a way around a roadblock.

She was answering the question of “how CAN we do this.”

You might think, well this is a one-off situation. Surely, no one would go through with such an idea? Let me introduce you to Waukee Central Community School District in Iowa, where teachers at the high school have been instructed to play musical chairs, having students switch seats every 12-14 minutes. All in the name of circumventing a rule.

We might not all fall to the depths of ignorance displayed at the Georgia School Board meeting or in the Iowa school district, but we all fall for asking “can we do this?” when encountering an issue or challenge. We start formulating plans for how to circumvent the issue.

But we missed one crucial step. The question we need to ask before we get to the details, before we enter the problem-solving phase. SHOULD we, not can we, is the first question we ought to ask.

Should we try to circumvent a rule designed to protect students? No…

When facing a challenge, it’s easy to jump straight into problem-solving mode. It’s what leaders do. See a problem and find a way through. But, in times of uncertainty, we need to pause for just a moment and start with “should” instead of “can.” When we enter problem-solving mode, we zoom in. Our perspective narrows on what’s right in front of us; the issue at hand. Research shows that not only does our focus narrow, but our opportunities for action do as well. We become locked in on one or two possibilities in front of us.

A pause allows us to zoom back out. To broaden our perspective. When we do so, our world opens up. We become more creative, we see multiple paths where once there was one. And we give ourselves a better chance not only of doing the effective thing, but also the right thing.

— Steve

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