‘I have to let the cat out’

One of the things that I love to unpack is the ability to see things through others’ eyes. Doing it is really difficult. Trying to teach it, I think, requires a total commitment to opening up the learning space. No one person knows the answer; the answer emerges.

Which is why I love this story.

My spouse is an expert in the care of the elderly. Among the things she does is to teach those who are at the front lines of care at healthcare institutions to reduce the risk of things like falls.

She tells the story of one incident that is difficult, but typical. An elderly woman is under care of a healthcare institution. She suffers from dementia. She falls after getting out of bed – it became a pattern of falls – at a particular time in the evening.

Falls are deadly. So really understanding the underlying reason for this pattern is critical.

The question is: Why? Why was she trying to get out of bed, at that time? It was roughly the same time at night. When asked, the woman explained that she got out of bed because “I have to let the cat out.”

But there is no cat. This is a room in a healthcare institution, not a home.

The easy answer is to just write that explanation off as dementia.

But how might we check that assumption and instead, take that comment as one of many potential clues to understanding her world?

All members of the staff who were engaged in the care of this woman were asked to play detective. It was a staff group that included diverse roles, each urged to think from the point of view of the elderly woman.

A member of the housekeeping staff ultimately discovered the clue that led to an answer. Every night, at about the time the woman heard the cat, someone from the staff had entered the room and then left. The housekeeping staff member noticed that the door to the room squeaked when closed – and it sounded a bit like a cat’s meow.

The staff conducted an experiment and oiled the door.

Problem solved. No more cat to be let out. No more trying to get out of bed at that moment. A reduction in the risk of falling.

The story is more complex than this telling. It is only in hindsight that the letting-the-cat-out clue jumps out as the key to unlocking a solution. At the time of the investigation there were many clues, many assumptions to be checked, and many hypotheses.

And in some ways the challenge in this story is also simple – in the sense that there is an answer. It was a puzzle problem; complicated, but with one right answer. Those are different from complex problems that may have many right or wrong answers (the world we typically live in as organizational professionals).

But I really like this story as a way to illustrate what it takes to use empathy – understanding user perspective or experience – as an every day organizational mindset. It requires continuous listening and creativity. It also requires space to allow a diverse team to let solutions emerge from insights. I think this is more than just trusting that a diverse team and space will get you there, but truly depending upon a diverse team as instrumental to the effort.


One thought on “‘I have to let the cat out’

  1. Thanks for this, Jeff. I think so often when we run into problems like this, we either ask the person involved why it happens and accept that at face value, or get frustrated when we can’t. And what you’ve illustrated is that we are really much better off when we treat it in the same way we treat typical problem solving – consider additional perspectives.

    This is a practice I’ve developed for customer support. People so often ask questions in a way that lacks context, so I intentionally pause before answering and see what additional information I might be able to glean to provide that context and therefore come up with an answer to the question.

    Thanks for the reminder to extent this beyond that, to other aspects of my life.

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