The upside of inconvenience

As transport strikes over pension reform in France bring disruption to trains, planes, and the Paris Métro, I’m reminded of a piece of research conducted by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge a few years back.

Drawing on anonymised data from London’s Oyster travel card, researchers explored the impact of transport strikes on individual commuters’ Tube journeys.

Researchers discovered that a significant fraction of regular commuters who changed their route because of the strike, stuck to the new route afterwards.

Though the proportion was small (around one in 20), a cost-benefit analysis of the time saved by those who changed their daily commute revealed that the strike actually brought economic benefit: the amount of time saved in the long run outweighed the inconvenience of time lost during the strike.

“The London Tube map itself may have been a reason why many commuters did not find their optimal journey before the strike,” notes a writeup of the research from the University of Oxford. Because the actual distances between stops are distorted by the map, travellers sometimes make inefficient choices; the strike, by forcing them to choose differently, revealed more efficient ways for them to make their daily commute.

Something similar can happen with strategic conversations. It can feel like a fuss, an imposition, or a distraction – when there is plenty of work to be getting on with in the here and now. We talk of “analysis paralysis” and our bias is towards doing something, rather than reflecting on our identity, our journey, or what might await us if we ever get to the far horizon.

But sometimes the very friction generated by these discussions is the source of new insights. Sometimes the journey we have to travel during such a conversation reveals that our current map was not best suited to achieving our goals. Changing the texture of our interactions in a workshop or discussion can give our minds fresh purchase on the fundamental questions of what we do and with whom, how we do it, and why.

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