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.

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 07.53.38

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.

Three Reasons Why We Fail To Solve Problems

Why do some problems get solved whilst others stick around? Here are three examples of why we sometimes fail and what we could do differently.

At the beginning of April 2020 the World Health Organisation made a public declaration of collaboration that attempted to unify hundreds of scientific communities around one single goal: to speed the availability of a vaccine against COVID-19.

The pandemic is far from being ‘solved’, and may indeed remain unsolvable. However, one particular part of the problem was addressed just eight months later with people getting the very first vaccines, a process that normally takes years.

So how come we’ve not solved , or even made decent inroads, into problems that have beset us for decades like the housing or social care crisis?

How come you’ve likely got the same problems in your organisation that you’ve always had?

Or you thought you’d solved a problem but it just returned, in a mutated form?

The Importance of Constraints

One of the most recurring reasons for a problem not getting effectively solved is that it was never clearly defined in the first place. We’ve been doing some work at Bromford around effective team collaboration, and my colleague Carl Sautereau often talks of the ‘freedom of a tight brief’. In my language – he’s talking about the importance of a really well defined problem.

“Give me the freedom of a tight brief” was originally invoked by advertising legend David Ogilvy, as a requisite requirement for unleashing creative brilliance. Innovation thrives when we have constraints – as it shows us where to focus and, more importantly, where not to.

It reminds me of the work of Dr. Caneel Joyce, who says that “giving people too much choice limits creativity, just as giving them no choice at all does… just enough constraint incites us to explore solutions in new places and in new ways.”

She uses the analogy of a playground as a starting point for understanding the whole concept of constraints. Research found that when a fence is put up around a playground, children use the entire space to explore and play; the fence giving them a sense of safety and security. On the other hand, if that fence is removed from the playground’s border, the limits become unclear and the children stay toward the middle because that’s where they feel safe. Importantly, in team work within organisations Joyce found that the absence of clear constraints actually created conflict stemming from the unarticulated assumptions that people brought to the table.

One of the reasons for the rapid vaccine development is it had the tightest of tight briefs before it was deployed to multiple teams to solve.

Failure to Build Consensus

Another reason problems continue is where we fail to get sufficient support and don’t build a coalition around a solution. The housing sector , for example, has struggled for years to get traction behind what is a compelling argument for more affordable housing. In that case there are multiple actors involved in solving the problem , the same as vaccine development, but people have many different views on what the solution should be. Should it be more home ownership, shared ownership or rented? What’s the right mix? What does affordable even mean? Isn’t this just about too much immigration anyway? It’s a subject that can get very political very quickly, particularly in such a class conscious country as the UK.

You’ll have similar issues at organisational level, where barriers emerge at every step of the way. There are a number of ways to build consensus, but one I have found personally useful is the Japanese concept of nemawashi which means quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project.

A typical western approach would be to work up an idea or project, propose it to the boss or executive and if the idea is good enough, it will be chosen. Even assuming that approach is successful it then has numerous barriers ahead as you’ve got to negotiate the organisational antibodies designed to repel anything new or foreign.

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.  It takes patience and highly developed political nous but:

  • It reduces the risk of the idea by involving key people, and developing it, in the process of making it real.
  • Although there’s an upfront investment it time it reduces the time required overall, as it moves any potential conflict to the front end.
  • It increases people’s involvement in the idea, they are then personally invested in making it work as it is ‘theirs’
  • It increases the likelihood of success, because the idea has been refined by the many rather than the few

We’ve all resisted ideas because we weren’t asked or it landed outside our front door without us granting it permission. It’s a natural human reaction.

The Timing Isn’t Right

Timing is everything. A few years ago I remember doing Lab experiments on the use of QR codes for getting information to colleagues and customers. It failed.

At the time, QR readers were not built into most smartphones – it required the download of an app. Additionally, QR code use was so infrequent people were not in the behaviour of using the scanners. It had too much friction.

COVID changed all that. After a decade of mockery and dismissal, it took a period when nobody wants to touch anything apart from their phones to bring them into widespread use. I don’t know who invented the QR code , but they probably spent 10 years wondering why no-one was listening to their bright idea.

A tight brief that nails the problem and builds constraints around it , the building of consensus on a solution and the timing of the execution – all necessary components of solving problems.

Innovation isn’t about ideas. It’s about the right solution, for the right people, at the right time.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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

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.

change-001

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.

The Problem With Finding Answers

Don’t Look for a Great Idea. Look for a Good Problem – Greg Satell

Yesterday I spent five and half hours in a room with my colleagues Carole and Simon trying to get to the root of a problem.

Three colleagues – over 16 hours of valuable time, just thinking.

It was worth every minute. We’d missed at least two crucial questions in our service design and were perilously close to jumping straight to answers.

If you jump straight to answers two things 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.

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.

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

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

John Wade is surely on to something when he talks about a different kind of meeting where people rarely speak…and if they do they never try to assert their ideas or opinions over others. Maybe we just need more listening?

More Agile, More Problems

One of the issues I have with agile working (which never feels very agile funnily enough) 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’ (cough).

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

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 07.53.38

The Problem with Solutions

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.

Right now people are getting a little nervy as Insight and Innovation at Bromford are expanding the range of options to consider. Our list of questions, our multiple lines of enquiry – grow daily.

But if, as Tim Kastelle says, 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.

Show Me The Data!

Here’s the thing: most of what we know is bullshit.

We presume that the way our organisations’ operate is because of some profound truth or deeply understood purpose – when often we have just built upon past behaviours and (sometimes false) assumptions.

Amazon talk of a truth-seeking culture. Of a belief that there’s an answer to every question and the job is to get the best answer possible. No PowerPoint is allowed at meetings. Six page word documents are read in silence at the start and never distributed in advance. This is to encourage focus, attention and establishing the facts.

In our session yesterday we stopped many times and asked:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Building a culture around evidence and enquiry might not sound as sexy as innovation and ideation – but in truth they go hand in hand.

Ask a better question, get a better answer.

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