Turn Your Company Into A Problem Solving Machine

Last week I spent four and half hours in a room with my colleagues trying to get to the root of a problem.

Six colleagues: 27 hours of just thinking.

Einstein believed the quality of the solution you generate is in direct proportion to your ability to identify the problem you hope to solve.

If you jump straight to answers you can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem. Your first idea really could be the worst idea.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

27 hours of thinking time – with no measurable outcome – is likely to be questioned as an indulgence.

At the same time many of us will have spent a lot of this week in meetings, most of which will be about generating activity rather than purposeful deliberation.

Why Agile Transformations Sometimes Fail

One of the issues I have with agile working is the presumption that teams using agile methods get things done faster. And fast is always good.

Fetishising speed results in just hurrying up. And once going fast is on the table, things quickly start falling off.

In the social sector addressing wicked problems is never going to be fast. It’s not just about a launching a new app, or customer ‘portal’.

We need to question some fundamental assumptions about how our businesses interact with citizens. And that may require unearthing some entirely new problems.

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If we don’t nail the problem, and fully explore idea generation, we put all our efforts into actions.

This looks good in a project plan because it appears to reduce uncertainty. In reality our list of questions, our multiple lines of enquiry – should grow daily. But if you’re disciplined enough to be able to live with that ambiguity for a while, you usually end up with a better answer to your problem.

How To Solve Impossible Problems

I was reminded this week of the CIA technique for solving difficult problems. Phoenix is a checklist of questions developed by the Central Intelligence Agency to encourage agents to look at a challenge from many different angles.

It’s a deliberate and exhaustive approach to problem definition framed in three steps:

  • Write your challenge. Isolate the challenge you want to think about and commit yourself to an answer, if not the answer, by a certain date.
  • Ask the questions. Use the Phoenix checklist to dissect the challenge in as many different ways as you can.
  • Record your answers. Information requests, solution, and ideas for evaluation and analysis.

You can see the full checklist here but I’ll pick on a few things organisations often completely miss:

  • Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
  • What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?
  • What is the unknown?
  • Suppose you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Can you use it? Can you use its method?
  • What are the best, worst, and most probable cases you can imagine?

And then the plan…

  • Can you separate the steps in the problem-solving process? Can you determine the correctness of each step?
  • What creative thinking techniques can you use to generate ideas? How many different techniques?
  • How will you know when you are successful?

Our organisations and customers would be better served if we played detective a little more. Detectives solve problems by finding the relationship between facts  – they observe what others don’t. They eliminate the improbable or impossible.

In our workshop last week we considered how we could learn to solve problems like machines, endlessly mining our data to get more predictive

Imagine applying machine learning to a dataset across the social sector. Imagine the spread of machine learning to help solve the most challenging social problems in order to improve the lives of many.

Most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition.

We are hardwired to doing things rather than purposeful contemplation. Developing a culture that has a bias towards questions, curiosity and deep thinking is necessary if we are to solve our most pressing problems.


Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay

How To Kill Ideas (Part 53)

Many organisations act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place, often for very good reasons, that preserve the status quo.  Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms – ‘the way we do things around here’ – that can quell any creativity or dissent.

Organisations can quickly develop an autonomic immune response that kills ideas – without any conscious effort. This immune system builds up easily and quickly spreads, but is far harder to dismantle.

One of the ways you can begin to repel these idea antibodies is , as Chris Bolton has outlined, to deploy a sort of ‘immunosuppressant agent’. This may simply be strong leadership saying ‘all new ideas are welcome’.

In my last post I shared how Bromford are attempting to democratise innovation by asking the 50 most senior leaders in the organisation to develop their skills by daring to disagree with each other and becoming more receptive and open to challenge.  

Working with my LD50 colleagues we established a Developing Ideas Group where we encourage colleague to submit ideas that save us money or improve customer or colleague experience. We are trying to distinguish between simple ‘ideas’ that lend themselves to a ‘crack on and try it approach’ with a complete acceptance of failure, and the more complex/higher risk problems.

The more complex problems are presented through a colleague pitch.

Asking colleagues to pitch ideas is a high risk venture. There is a glorification of the pitch in business today. Startup events and innovation challenges are popping up everywhere. Hacks are common, with 24 hour business creation marathons where strangers connect and form solutions together. Every such event revolves around the pitch and the skills and strategies required for an effective pitch.

Asking people to pitch ideas can fail as it forces people to rush to solutions. Which hastily assembled pitch should we bet on? The answer should often be: none of the above.

Pitching ideas is often just innovation theatre. Too many Executives fancy themselves as budding Dragon’s Den investors – waiting to show their business acumen by outwitting the person pitching. Many years ago I took part in a innovation challenge that followed the Den format so closely you could almost guess which Dragon the Executives were pretending to be. It was a dispiriting experience, with colleagues emerging either crushed or with a lot more work to do – often with no more resources.

At Bromford we are trying to do something slightly different – asking colleagues to pitch really great problems rather than firm proposals.

We’ve been coaching some of the Leadership team using nemawashi principles – so the rule of the pitch is that you can’t shoot any idea down – or even criticise it – you can only ask questions.

As I have previously written Nemawashi is a Japanese phrase translating into ”an informal process of quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project, by talking to the people concerned, gathering support and feedback, and so forth.” In Nemawashi the potential solution is prepared in very draft form but this time we check in with any colleague with a significant organisational position, not just bosses, to build consensus.

As David O’Gorman has written the nemawashiringi process is grounded in the need to maintain harmony within the organisation while at the same time make sound decisions.  An advantage of the nemawashiringi process is that once a proposal is approved it can be rapidly implemented because all the relevant parties are on board. This is in contrast to Western processes, which can encounter obstacles during implementation, even from parts of their own organisation.

Ideas are easy to kill – problems aren’t

Simply unleashing ideas just isn’t enough. They are too vulnerable, too easy to kill off. If we anchor ideas in truly great problems you’ll find that colleagues build on the initial idea rather than attempt to destroy it.

A problem shared really IS a problem halved. Most problems do not fit neatly into one team or function and require input from a variety of perspectives. That’s why attempting to solve them in operational meetings with the usual suspects is a waste of time.  By harnessing the creativity, expertise, and ingenuity of the wider organisation as willing volunteers, we can solve problems in a more inclusive, efficient, and effective way.

And here’s the point: people don’t resist an idea they have helped define.

So don’t criticise ideas. Just learn to ask better questions.

The Problem With Constantly Finding Problems

Our brain is constantly searching for problems to fix, even when that problem is reducing. When something becomes rare, we tend to see it in places more than ever.

Anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail

Abraham Maslow or Abraham Kaplan (attributed)

Earlier this week I was challenged about my overuse of the word ‘problem’.

It’s a fair cop – innovation and design types are fond of saying you shouldn’t go looking for great ideas, you should unearth great problems.

If you jump straight to answers two things can happen:

  • You spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • You can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.

Indeed many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

My experience shows me that a lot of leaders simply don’t like problem definition, or even the word problem.

See, people don’t like admitting that organisations , or their departments, even have problems. One of the reasons for this is that is it runs counter to the narrative of the heroic leader. Admitting that you don’t even know the problems you face, never mind the solutions to them, is a definite blot on your copybook.

However , there is a problem with obsessive problem seeking.

As Pat McCardle writes, seeing people as a series of problems to be solved can lead to an epidemic of mass fixing. “The expectation is that everything from noisy neighbours, exam stress, misbehaving kids, sadness, unhappiness, everything that we experience as negative in our life, must either be solved by a service, state intervention, or a drug.” As she says, when we have evolved cultures and systems that are only designed to solve problems we risk focussing on weakness and deficits. We become very efficient hammers searching for vulnerable looking nails.

Our brain is constantly searching for problems to fix, even when that problem is reducing. When something becomes rare, we tend to see it in places more than ever. This in part explains why people feel the world is getting worse despite almost every measure confirming our planet is safer, happier and less violent than ever.

At organisational level this presents an issue – as we can unknowingly employ lots of people whose job it is to find problems that either don’t exist or aren’t a priority.

There are lots of examples of this that we see in day to day life. David Levari gives us the scenario of a Neighbourhood Watch made up of volunteers. When a new member starts volunteering, they raise the alarm when they see signs of serious crimes, like burglary. Overtime though the neighbourhood watcher may start to make relative judgments which keep expanding their concept of “crime” to include milder and milder transgressions, long after serious crimes have become rare. The ‘problem’ expands even as the original problem appears to have been solved.

The reason for this, as Daniel Gilbert says, may lie in a phenomenon called “prevalence induced concept change”. In a series of experiments they showed that as the prevalence of a problem is reduced, humans are naturally inclined to redefine the problem itself. The result is that as a problem becomes smaller, people’s conceptualisations of that problem become larger, which can lead them to miss the fact that they’ve solved it.

In some cases, Gilbert says, prevalence-induced concept change makes perfect sense, as in the case of an Accident and Emergency doctor trying to triage patients. Someone who has sprained an ankle will have longer to wait than someone with a head wound. But on a quiet day the sprained ankle could take precedent over other less serious issues. The context changes the priority of the problem.

In other cases, however, prevalence-induced concept change can be a problem.

As Gilbert outlines “Nobody thinks a radiologist should change his definition of what constitutes a tumour and continue to find them even when they’re gone.That’s a case in which you really must be able to know when your work is done. You should be able to see that the prevalence of tumours has gone to zero and call it a day. Our studies simply suggest that this isn’t an easy thing to do. Our definitions of concepts seem to expand whether we want them to or not.”

So if you’ve ever faced:

  • The overzealous IT Infosec person who constantly raises security concerns.
  • The Health and Safety team who create more and more training courses for people to complete.
  • The Research team who keep telling you more research and more resource is needed.
  • The Design team who tell you that your latest service needs to go back to problem definition as it hasn’t been implemented correctly.
  • The CEO who wants another change programme.

You could be facing cases of prevalence-induced concept change.

As Gilbert says – anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done.  

This is something our businesses have to get better at, as not knowing when to stop is the the prime driver of organisational overreach. But as the studies suggest – simply being aware of this problem is not sufficient to prevent it.

What can prevent it?

That’s another problem.


Photo by Jules Bss on Unsplash

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