I’ve Painted Myself Into a Corner!

I have an analogy I like to use a lot.

Have you ever felt like you’ve painted yourself into a corner? Or you see someone who thinks they have? This is a well-known analogy, but I’m going to take it one step further. Frequently when I see people who are convinced they have painted themselves into a corner I think, “You’re not really in a corner, you just think you are. If you would just turn around and look, there are no walls behind you. It’s wide open!”

It is very common for me to be working on a project and I see a task stalled and struggling to find a way forward. And I look in from the outside and think, “you could just adjust or pivot your way forward and break through this stall”. But the team is, for whatever reason, unable to see this. If they would only turn around they would see that they are not painted into a corner at all. It’s wide open and they can just step wherever they want!

I see this so often, that I also try to be extra-sensitive to the fact that it could be me! What are some specific, intentional things that I could be doing to ensure that I’m not actually painted into a corner, I just think I am?

Focus on the Goal, Not the Solution

One important perspective is to keep working up your requirements chain. For example, let’s say we are having a hard time deploying this app. OK, why do you need this app? To provide this process capability. Why do you need this capability? To meet this corporate business function. Why do you need this business function? To meet some compliance requirement. And so on. Once you’ve worked your way backwards far enough, you can start thinking about alternative ways to get to that foundational requirement. Maybe there’s a different app that you can use. Maybe there’s an existing app. Maybe there’s a different, existing corporate business function that can be used to meet the compliance requirement.

Remember, in the brainstorming phase there are no bad ideas. You can throw everything at the wall, to at least discuss and think about it. Sometimes this is where the greatest leaps in innovation come from.

Surround Yourself With Diverse Viewpoints

Here is a place where having differing viewpoints in the room can be extremely useful. I suspect one key reason you can get stuck in an imaginary corner is the biases that come with people’s experiences. We (and I include myself in this) see everything through the lens of our own skills and preferences, so we tend to only look at solutions we are comfortable with. By having different people from different backgrounds with different experiences involved in the brainstorming and solutioning, then different ideas and ways forward can be proposed, potentially even something that we have never thought of before!

You Have to Have Humility

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.


A common concept tossed about in leadership training is the old adage about “surround yourself with smart people.” I’ve heard a lot of people in leadership roles state this out loud, and sometimes even go so far as to assert that the people they are surrounding themselves with are “smarter than I am”.

This is a great idea in theory, but does it get put into practice? It’s easy to say these platitudes, but do you actually listen to the “smart people” that you have surrounded yourself with? It takes a lot of humility and self-awareness to listen, and I mean REALLY listen, to what other people are saying and consider their ideas. I so frequently see leaders who are willing to listen to other people but are not (for whatever reason…I suspect ego) able to trust other people’s judgment and take their advice. If that’s what you are doing, then have you actually just surrounded yourself with smart people for the appearance of diversity, but actually, everything is still just done your way?

The next time you find yourself stalled and “painted into a corner”, try these tactics to see if there truly are walls behind you, or if in reality you are not painted into a corner and there is a wide-open field of opportunity for you to step into.

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