Lessons in how to avoid a fight or flight reaction to briefs

Let’s start from the beginning.

Fight or flight?

These two essential survival instincts hardwired deep into human brains served our ancestors well. They ensured only the fittest homo sapiens would survive in order to pass on their most useful genetic traits to future generations. Back then, sabre-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths were unmistakable threats. Slay them or stay out of their way were the only options.

How exactly do these primitive stress responses serve us now? What threats are we fighting-or-fleeing at work and in life and more importantly how do we identify them? After all, modern-day dangers are not as apparent as the gnarly beasts of yesteryear.

Take for example Kodak, who once thought digital photography was nothing but a passing fad. The management chose to ignore it, stuck with its film-based business and set the company squarely on the path to bankruptcy. Are our ancient survival instincts failing us or must we adapt them to live in this day and age?

We no longer vanquish foreseen dangers and our fight-or-flight instinct has evolved into an insatiable need to fix problems. Those who react fast and fix problems quickly become the fittest survivors. When every project in an agency now feels like a race for survival, these carefully honed instincts kick in, allowing us to react swiftly to just about everything. But surely there must be more our biology has to offer that helps ensure the survival of our trade?

Meet curiosity; a hardwired human trait which controls our desire to explore and uncover information. It’s a less frequently activated primal instinct but was equally vital to our ancestors’ survival. Being curious meant having to take more risks, travelling farther, expending more time and effort in exchange for lots of uncertainty but potentially greater rewards. Curiosity meant discovering better food sources and more habitable landscapes which significantly increased the odds for survival for those who dared break the mould.

So how can we restrain ourselves from immediately plunging into our default fight or flight reaction to fix things, in order to give ourselves the opportunity to explore? Our contemporary problems may be much more benign than the killer mammals of our ancestors but are just as valid for our survival in the workplace.

Here’s some key points to ask ourselves before charging ahead to solve a brief.

1) Does this problem feel familiar? If it feels like an old chestnut, chances are we’ve been trying to fix it the same way over and over again.

2) How can the problem be reframed differently? Have we spent time exploring new perspectives that could articulate the problem differently?

3) Who is the most stressed out by this problem? What role do they play in the bigger picture? Is the individual’s agenda aligned with the collective problem at hand?

4) Does a solution pop into my head almost instantly? If so, go back to the drawing board and reframe the problem because I haven’t explored enough.

5) Sleep on it. If it feels just as daunting the day after, by all means, go fix it.

So, if we reframe the maxim ‘survival of the fittest’, the real winners will be those who can control our primitive instinct in order to explore more and to give both instincts an equal chance to serve.

Mylene Ong is the head of strategy at Colenso BBDO.

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