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.

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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.

Best Practice, Benchmarking and the Race to Mediocrity

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We must be different. We must be lopsided. No more herdlike regression toward the mean – we must find the things at which we’re great, and build on those – Tim Kastelle

A few years ago my organisation adopted a new way of working. We implemented it , with the help of consultants, as it had achieved glowing praise during a regulatory inspection at a similar organisation.

It was held up as an example of that most intangible of things: best practice.

We all had lots of meetings about it. We all had training. And we all did a lot of work to prepare for the arrival of this system that promised to change the way we worked forever.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Nothing changed.

In fact I don’t think I ever used it. Not once.

The problem with buying in solutions that have performed brilliantly in other organisations is that most of the time, they just don’t work.

That’s not to say they never worked. They may well have worked for somebody else, somewhere else. They may well have worked at another time. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to just port successful practice from one place to the next. 

The public sector predilection for best practice and benchmarking is quite perverse when you think about it.

  • Imagine starting up a new business and the first thing you decide to do is figure out who is operating in a similar space as yourself.
  • Having found them you both start a club and invite others, who are also like you.
  • Then you all start comparing your practices, processes and results and eventually work out who’s the best.
  • Then you copy them.

That’s absolutely not the route to greatness.

If everyone strives to do the same thing the same way, they will end up close to average.

Best practice and benchmarking are just a race to be first at being average. 

A quick caveat: best practice can work in some scenarios. Usually very simple repeatable ones. Chris Bolton points this out in his excellent post, but goes on to say, “The chances of someone else’s best practice working  in your complex environment (particularly if it is forced onto you) seems unlikely.”

Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink , and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.

Within organisations a culture of following best practice can quickly become a culture that is frightened of doing new things.

I’ve heard many in my own sector say “We aren’t brave enough to do the things that (insert someone innovative) are doing, we’d rather watch and learn.”

This is a terrible mistake.

If you watch them and they fail – they have all the learning and you have none.

And if they succeed it means you have failed to keep up with them, and you still have zero learning.

Rather than regressing towards the mean let’s learn by being responsibly creative.

Try visiting lots of people who are unlike you.

The more unlike you they are the more you should visit. Connect with people via social media who are the polar opposite of you. If you are just hanging around with the sector crowd you will become more average with every passing day.

This a slide from Creating a Culture That’s Innovation Ready showing some of the organisations that we have visited and done business with over the years.

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We haven’t attempted to be like any of them but it has been a massive generator of new practices, ideas and possibilities. Never go away and try to copy them though , always adapt the idea to your own culture.

Try learning by doing.

Most of these ideas are best tested by adopting a safe to fail approach: small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles.  We will always learn more by making our own mistakes than comparing each others (usually flattering) benchmarking scores.

Try being an organisation that only you can be. 

We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. Trying to be like each other is a criminal waste of time.

The market is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.

We have an opportunity to be more different, more memorable and make more change than anyone else.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity instead?

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