Why We Are So Bad At Defining Problems

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. – Albert Einstein

I don’t know whether Einstein ever used those words. It may be just like the Henry Ford “Faster Horses” quote – something perfectly phrased and also perfectly true that no-one actually ever said.

Whether he said it or not, Einstein believed the quality of the solution you generate is in direct proportion to your ability to identify the problem you hope to solve.

And of course he was right, you can’t really solve a problem you don’t fully understand. “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Another quote he (probably) didn’t say.

Either way, 60 years after his death, many of our organisations have still failed to learn his most valuable lesson. So what is so difficult about problem definition?

Many of our organisations have set the climate for solution focused rather than problem defining behaviours.

A solution focused culture is exacerbated by the following conditions:

  • Leadership putting pressure on finding quick fixes and the realisation of short term goals – rather than long term impact
  • Discussing problems, or considering that organisation itself may be part of the problem, is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness
  • Management falls in love with a solution too easily even if it’s not solving the problem at hand
  • An implicit assumption that leaders have all the answers. “Let managers manage and get on with it”
  • A lack of evidence based enquiry – which allows bullshit organisational ‘facts’ to circulate and obfuscate true problem definition

In my work over the past five years, since I’ve given up having any operational responsibilities, I’ve seen how easily we can all lapse into solution focused work.

Unlike Einstein, when given an hour we often spend – at best – 5 minutes on the problem and the remaining 55 minutes solutionizing.

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As Simon Penny writes in a great piece for Bromford Lab “when we talk about design we are using it as shorthand for 4 key elements of problem solving activity – discovery, definition, development and delivery. That means that at least half of what we do is based on truly understanding and defining the problem we are trying to solve and the other half is based on developing, testing and iterating ideas into a scalable solution. In short, we think about design as a whole end-to-end process”.

So rather than seeing problem definition as a one off activity, it’s now what we do all the time, objectively helping the organisation to solve the right problems and resist its inbuilt solutionist behaviours.

The five step approach to problem definition

1 – Establish the need for a solution

This sounds completely obvious but just because you’ve seen or thought of a solution doesn’t necessarily mean one is actually needed.  Starting with a high level question of “What problem are we trying to solve here?” and being very clear about it is a good starting point. You’ll usually come up with a lot of further questions – so don’t even bother trying to fully define the problem at this point. There may not even be one.

2 – Match the problem to organisational strategy

Even if you’ve established the need for a solution – it may not be one your organisation is best placed to provide. No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective. The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on trying to solve fewer problems, in better ways.

That involves finding your ‘irreducible core’ of services and then constantly refining and innovating against it.

It also means saying no to trying to solve everyone else’s problems.

3 – Explore the context to the problem

Often your problem will be one that the organisation has tried to resolve before. We rarely stop to reflect on why our previous efforts failed and what we should avoid this time.

If the problem is industry wide, it’s crucial to understand why the market has failed to address it, and whether it is even feasible.

4 – Writing the problem statement

Now you’re ready to write something down. A problem statement should describe the undesirable gap between the current-state and future-state. It should avoid any mention of a solution and be no longer than a tweet.

5 – Initial prototype solution

As Simon Penny also wrote here , prototyping can also be used to test an idea; not by creating a smaller working version of a service or product, but by testing the many different component parts or even thinking abstractedly in order to start to uncover what it might feel like to use the service or product. This can be tested – with people – to help you further refine the problem. Thinking of prototyping as part of the problem definition helps you avoid falling in love with your first idea.

All of this takes time , and this is why our organisations are bad at it.

Falling in love with the problem , rather than the solution means:

  • Accepting your first idea could be the worst idea – and might be wrong
  • Being brave enough to pull the plug when you realise you’re not the ones to solve it
  • Becoming comfortable with failure – as the only way you’ll ever explore a problem worth solving is through a ‘try, fail, learn and try again’ model.

When you truly fall in love with problems, not solutions, you not only stand a better chance of solving them. You also start unlocking a path to a better, less complicated organisation.


Footnote:

By the way – it is possible to argue you can solve problems without first defining them.

I’m currently travelling and it’s inconceivable that we once had to carry suitcases. The first wheeled luggage was invented by Bernard Sadow because he had a bad experience in customs returning from Aruba. Struggling to carry his heavy luggage, he observed an airport worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid. The rolling suitcase was born.

That’s not how our organisations work though. If the eureka moment was so common place we’d have solved most of our most intractable problems by now!

Does Regulation Really Stifle Innovation?

Last week I did a presentation to a group of managers when the issue of governance and regulation ‘getting in the way’ of innovation came up.

People often think regulations stifle innovation, new business and services. They assume that regulators are there to control and curtail what they want to do.

“We are so heavily regulated, we can’t change what we do” is a familiar cry from those in the public sector.

Is it true that regulators are blockers of innovation, or is it false perception?

Even worse – is this simply a convenient excuse used to resist change?

It’s true that if you looked at the websites and reports of most regulators you’d likely get a view that they are a pretty conservative bunch. There’s plenty of talk of consistency, best practice and benchmarking. And we all know that best practice and benchmarking are often just a race to be first at being average.

In reality though, when you meet face to face, I’ve never met a regulator who doesn’t want to see more innovation in their industry.

Last year I did two pieces of work, one for Ofwat, the economic regulator of the water sector in England and Wales, and the other for the Regulator of Social Housing. Both organisations were looking for ways to innovate within their own organisations and to spur on a greater drive for experimentation within their wider sectors.

It’s not in the interests of a regulator to be anti-innovation. A report last year  found that respondents were looking to regulators to support innovation, and to an extent most organisations are seeing this take place. 1 in 4 though see regulators as innovation blockers.

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Part of the problem here is the definition of innovation, a disruptive pioneer (Uber for example) to one person is the unregulated aggressive exploiter of people to another.

Unregulated disruption is sometimes necessary. Had ride-sharing firms been prevented from entering the traditional taxi cab market, we would not be enjoying a better customer experience today. Arguably, the incumbents would never have improved their services left to their own devices.

In today’s world of speed and digital innovation though, regulators need adaptive regulations -and a more responsive, iterative approach.

That said – innovation gone bad requires regulation. Arguably “financial innovations” such as easy credit, subprime lending, mortgage-backed securities caused the financial crisis. It was a perfect storm to have uncontrolled innovation at the same time as encouraging light touch regulation.

Innovation as risk management

The fear of innovation within any organisation is far more likely to come from heavy handed approaches to governance and risk than it comes from external regulation.

At the event earlier this week, Ian Wright, Managing Director of the Disruptive Innovators Network asked a very good question: what is your risk patience? 

Most of our organisations and institutions lean toward control and order and away from chaos and risk.

How does your organisation actively seek out risk? Only 20% of strategy officers describe their organisation as risk seeking. We need to transform risk management from being about “stopping doing things” to being about “starting doing different things” within a well managed framework.

Traditionally we have not being good at focussing risk management on the right areas. Significant amounts of time are spent auditing areas that are highly unlikely to ever cause major reputational damage. This can be a huge inhibitor of potential innovation.

Whenever you innovate you’re taking a risk. What I’m anxious to get across to the public sector is that you DO need to take those risks – the Auditor General for Wales.

The work of the Wales Audit Office and in particular their Good Practice Exchange is a great example of an audit and assurance approach that encourages well managed risks

Innovation done badly IS a risk, but innovation done well is good risk management.

Having a framework that protects the host organisation from early stage experiments until they have proven value is actually good governance.

Orbit Innovation Event

The best approaches to innovation always have a way of framing and strategising, allocating and diversifying risk – whilst buffering the rest of the organisation from it. Organisations equipped with this will be less risk averse and conduct more risk-taking behaviour.

Ultimately, your organisation has plenty of excuses not to take risks, to stick to the tried and tested, to follow the same path as everyone else.

But fear of the regulator isn’t one of them.

The No.1 Problem With The Digital Workplace

“Collaboration is an essential skill of the digital economy. And yet how to collaborate productively is hardly ever taught either in universities or in the workplace.” – Gerry McGovern

It’s only a couple of months since I posted Why We Don’t Collaborate, but a few things I’ve been reading and observing make it a subject worthy of returning to.

The people selling us the digital dream (agile working, always on connectivity, work from anywhere) too often skip important questions. Are we really more productive? And do we really collaborate better that we used to? 

As Gerry points out in his post , collaboration isn’t taught. You’re just expected to know. “Productive collaboration is really hard. It requires a whole range of communication, organizational and social skills.”

I’m old enough to remember when my pre-digital inbox (a filing tray) was actually audited by my team leader. In my first real job my performance related pay actually depended on my ability to effectively organise my day, my work and how I communicated and collaborated with others.

Today, I could have thousands of emails in my inbox and nobody would know. I could be presenting an image of an organised and well functioning colleague when I’m actually drowning.

The abundance of technology and the myriad new ways to interrupt someone’s day isn’t necessarily evidence of progress.

A new report on the potential impacts of digital technologies on co-production and co-creation finds that there is a lack of hard evidence of actual impact. Indeed, “conceptual fuzziness and tech-optimism stand in the way of collecting such evidence”.

This tech optimism is worth dwelling on. The report notes we tend to stress the enormous benefits digital technologies could have, but tend to ignore the profound uncertainties and risks that come with technological innovation. Digital transformation in a nutshell!

The report ends with an important question – who controls the shape of digital technologies in public service delivery and, by implication, the opportunities for co-production and co-creation?

In a more optimistic piece for Harvard Business Review, Raj Choudhury , Barbara Z. Larson and Cirrus Foroughi write that an increasingly mobile workforce can present problems for traditional team leaders.  Their research indicates that the real productivity boost doesn’t come from digital tools per se, but rather from the increased flexible working options that digital can facilitate.

Their study compared how productive, loyal, and cost-effective employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were when they were allowed to work flexibly. They chose that employer because it had recently implemented a wide-scale pilot program allowing people to work from where and when they wanted, while still requiring others to remain in the office.

The results were 4.4% higher productivity among those in the pilot program, from people doing the exact same work as those who were required to come into the office.

However, they note that work-from-anywhere policies could increase costs in work environments that require brainstorming and project-based interaction, adding that more research is needed to fully understand the implications of remote work in more collaborative settings.

So again, the jury is out on whether the digital workplace helps or hinders collaboration.

I’m an eternal optimist so my gut feeling is that mobile working done well, leads to a better connected, more productive workplace.

On Tuesday this week my team hosted a hackathon in the Cotswolds. We came together physically with a range of partners and then retreated to synthesise the outputs remotely. The draft report and basic prototypes were distributed less that 36 hours later. There’s no way we could do that without digital tools AND having work from anywhere flexibility.

However, we are an innovation and design team who have the luxury to experiment with digital collaboration tools and we can invest a lot of time in our personal learning. We frequently go ‘off grid’ and use non work sanctioned tools if we can find a better way of doing it.

That probably doesn’t apply to 99% of workers – and it’s these people we need to focus on if we really are to get the benefits of our investment in technology.

Leveraging technology to connect and collaborate with people at scale is the No.1 requirement of the 21st-century leader.

It won’t happen on its own. So if you have a digital workplace strategy, you need a collaboration strategy too. Because if we don’t teach, measure, encourage and reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

Without that support the magical collaborative workplace of the future may be further off than you think.

 


Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash

Four Factors Hindering Transformation

The problem with good service design is that you don’t notice it.

It’s only when you experience truly bad design that you appreciate the good stuff.

That’s why so few organisations are design led. They focus on designing out the bad rather than designing in the good from the beginning.

Earlier this week I ordered a package – to be delivered from the Royal Mail.

It required a signature so I arranged it to arrive on Thursday when I planned to be working from home.

On Tuesday morning the Royal Mail sent me an SMS and email to say they were pleased to announce that the item would arrive earlier than expected.

They might well have been pleased at the early arrival, but I was 60 miles away and stuck in a meeting. There was no option to request a redelivery. No option to even cancel it. Just accept an inevitable failure. 

Any redelivery could only be attempted after they had first failed to deliver it.

Here was a company actually wasting the time of their employees and their customer – and seemingly proud of it.

In defence of Amazon and Uber

It’s easy to criticise the likes of Amazon and Uber for their ethics , but we forget at our peril the benefits these providers have bought us.

But they don’t pay taxes! As if no company ever evaded taxes before Amazon.

But they exploit workers! As if taxi drivers were never exploited before, or resisted the opportunity to exploit us customers.

We shouldn’t let these type of companies off the hook for their transgressions, but neither should we forget what life was like before their breakthroughs in customer experience.

Getting a delivery within 24 hours or not having to queue for a taxi now feels so normal that one starts to wonder why it took so long.

The incumbent companies they disrupted all had the same money, time and technology to change the way they did business, but they resisted the opportunity to shape themselves around what customers actually wanted.

Why digital transformation isn’t enough

Richard Godfrey makes a similar point about the failure of banks to reimagine their services. Setting up a new account in most cases still requires a bank visit, or an e-form or a phone call at the very least.  How can that still exist in a world where you can sign up for a Monzo or Revolut account in minutes by downloading an app and proving your identity and address with image capture software and facial recognition?

As Richard points out, most ‘transformations’ are nothing of the sort, but simply a digital overlay on top of how business has always been done. He wonders why the process of claiming housing benefit can’t be made so easy. Of course it can, people just don’t want to make it easy.

As someone who has worked to redesign services from the ground up, putting the customer in control, I’d say you can’t underestimate how difficult this culture change required is.

Many of our organisations – despite the rhetoric – have policies and procedures that are profoundly anti-customer. We have built checks, balances and verifications into our process because , deep down, we don’t actually trust the motivations of the public.

This is an uncomfortable truth – but goes some way to explain the difference in satisfaction levels between some of the public and private sector.

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A new post from McKinsey finds that whilst many the public sector and governments are moving forward with customer experience initiatives, in general private-sector organisations are a lot better at providing services.

I don’t always agree with the private/public distinction but some of the stumbling blocks they identify are helpful. The common traits that prevent genuine transformation are:

  1. A monopolistic mind-set. When customers don’t have a choice, it dramatically removes a major incentive to innovate and improve service.
  2. The public sector have to be fair to everyone.  They can’t just ignore certain customer segments. This ‘fairness’ often solidifies over time into a principle of providing one-size-fits-all service. Or rather, one-size-fits-no-one.
  3. We often lack the capabilities needed to assess and address gaps in customer experience. Those with deep analytics skills, as well as human-centered design skills, are often in short supply.
  4. Data is typically incomplete or sequestered in silos. Organisations often lack a full, timely picture of the customer’s overall experience.

This ‘fair for everyone’, but exceptional for no-one, agenda presents a genuine design challenge. The capacity for innovation for huge, but the capability for it is virtually zero.

It’s hampered because innovation requires a tolerance for failure , and upsetting people.  It’s too easy to see the short-term political consequences of initiatives gone wrong and debate whether public money is going down the drain.

However we have a responsibility to take risks – we need to cultivate a culture of innovation, and sometimes that means spending money trying new things, and being ‘unfair’ to some people.

What if Uber and Amazon did health, housing and social care?

Three years ago I wrote a post speculating on that very question – it remains the second most popular piece on this blog.

I don’t stand by everything I said back then, but I do agree with the final point.

Any sector that has multiple players performing similar services is ripe for disruption.

There’s no question about whether the Uber , Amazon, Facebook and Alibaba of the public sector will emerge.

It’s simply a matter of when.

Why Story Will Always Beat Statistics

Data is not fact and fact is often just a hypothesis anyway.

We humans design how data is created and we humans are the ones who interpret data and draw conclusions from it.

Therefore, data will always be inherently fallible – Gerry McGovern

Many of our organisations attempt to illustrate the achievement of their purpose through data and the production of statistics.

We sell this many products, or save that many lives or house this many people.

Then we wonder why the public doesn’t understand what we do, or why the people who work for us have become disengaged from our purpose.

Despite living in a time where entire industries are being disrupted through stories , we still put our faith in statistics.

Because it’s better to convey our message with simple facts right?

The problem is, data isn’t simple or neutral or even factual.  The best data needs explanatory stories.  The human mind is a story processor, and to understand something is to know a good story about it.

The astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson was reminded of this lesson last week after tweeting that more people die in everyday circumstances like medical errors than in mass shootings.

As he noted in his Facebook apology , his intention to point out that more common, but milder causes of death trigger less response from us than events like mass shootings wasn’t welcome when there was another, more compelling story trending.

Telling the story through data alone, factually correct or not, doesn’t always win us fans.

I’ve been reading The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. In it he shows how novelists answer the challenge of “grabbing and keeping the attention of other people’s brains”.

I was struck by his point that most successful stories begin with a moment of change. In fact, all stories are change. These changeful moments. or the threat of change, are so important that they always appear in the first few sentences. His examples show that authors as diverse as J.K Rowling, Albert Camus and Karl Marx all use the same technique.

It’s because they know that we find change interesting – it forces us to listen, and it forces us to act.

Do our organisational stories begin with change?

As a simple test I checked out 10 websites of social purpose organisations and none of their recent press releases or blogs started out that way. It was all about how much investment had been attained,  or the £££ difference that was being made by their actions. Data, data everywhere but no decent stories.  No threat of change, no questions, no meaning.

Today’s organisations simply won’t be heard unless they’re telling good stories. Those of us who can create and share good stories have a powerful advantage over others.

One of the reasons I try to blog regularly is to get better at telling stories. The simple act of writing a short 600 word piece still forces you into a format of:

  • Beginning with a change or provocation
  • Asking a dramatic or interesting question
  • Crafting an ending that attempts to create some meaning

Fortunately this isn’t a skill only attainable by a few of us – all of us are good storytellers.

Storytelling is something we all do naturally, starting at a very young age. As human beings, we know that stories are what life is made of, but when we get up in the morning and go to work,  we seem to forget this.

In modern organisations storytelling should not only reside on the organisational level, it should permeate the whole system. It’s no longer the preserve of comms teams. In fact I’d suggest that if it’s your comms team who is telling the story , you have a problem.

If everybody feeds the story then the story feeds the people. Perhaps every employee should be encouraged to write one blog or post one video every month, encouraging us all to share stories?

This isn’t time wasted. Stories help us persuade people to take action.

We can all become better storytellers , and through that help our organisations become better and achieve our purpose.

Show me the data? Actually, don’t.

The story is the change.

The power is in the story first, the statistic second.


 

 

If you don’t have time to read the book from Will Storr you can listen to his TEDx talk here

How To Avoid Corporate Initiativitis

We’ve never felt so busy at work, and never been less engaged.

90% of people say they expect to find a substantial degree of joy at work, yet only 37% report that they do.

Many of our organisations remain afflicted by:

  • Initiative-itis: The condition of mistaking busyness for productivity
  • Vanity Projects: Things that only got pushed through because of seniority, overly generous funding or organisational arrogance.
  • Zombie Projects: Things that look good on paper but don’t actually solve anyone’s problem – whilst costing a lot of (usually someone else’s) money.

All three are the result of ill defined objectives or poor impact evaluation.

Part of the issue is that there’s too much change in the wrong places. This is anti-productivity  – when the organisation appears to be doing lots of good things but is actually achieving very little.

Change overload happens because every major department is trying to ‘make a name’ for themselves, adding layer upon layer of new initiatives.

Prioritisation , if it as done at all, is often done in silo. “We’re going to do these five or these 10 or these 20 initiatives.” As if anyone is good at 20 things.

With a surfeit of ideas, and the subsequent organisational complexity, a form of inertia sets in.

Two things can happen:

  • Leaders literally don’t know where to start. So they don’t.
  • With limited bandwidth to absorb all the change,  people get burned out by everything coming towards them. People want to support these initiatives, there are simply too many of them to pay attention to.

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Problem Definition As An Initiative Killer

Earlier this week I was with a colleague explaining the importance of problem definition. By way of example I dug out the notes of a session we had done over two years ago and was shocked to see how many problems we’d not yet begun to tackle.

It was a reminder to me that although we’ve got better at saying no to things, there’s still a journey to go on. Whilst we have got much better at circling around fewer problems we have to recognise that people are hardwired to seek out new things rather than spend time on purposeful contemplation and questioning.

The more you can reduce organisational initiatives to a few key problems the deeper you can go into them.

Do Fewer Things, Better

I can receive upwards of 30 new opportunities every week. I’ve tried to stick to a very simple way of prioritising.

1. Decide on what matters the most.

2. Say no to everything else.

If I can’t decide, between 1 and 2 I file it for a week then move it to 2.

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective, and it’s exactly the same for us as people.

The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities — the things they do better than any other company.

If you focus on 8 or more priorities you will make some progress in all of them but will struggle to be game-changing in any of them.

Taming Initiative Overload

Initiativitis is not to be laughed at.

It means decreased employee engagement.

It means lost productivity.

It means people leaving for other jobs.

The first step to taming overload is to align people with the organisations stated strategy – that should kill off pretty much 50% of initiatives.

The second step is to ask people for a problem statement. Actually writing down the problem helps everyone better understand the complexity. It can be short too. We should be able to summarise the problem in fewer than 140 characters. Anything longer and people start going into the solution.

Finally , consider establishing a ‘change group’ in your organisation to keep track of the amount of ideas flying around. At Bromford we meet weekly as a kind of air traffic control centre, trying to make sure that existing initiatives are safely landed before we launch a load of new ones up into the sky.

Building a culture around problem definition, and saying no to distractions might not sound as sexy as innovation and ideation – but in truth they go hand in hand.