Everything boils down to problem-solving—everything. New technology, new products, new processes, new business models, new markets, new behaviors, new company culture, innovation—it’s all problem-solving. There are many tools and processes for problem-solving, and they all suffer from the same problem. They all jump right to the sequence of solving.
Yes, problem-solving tools improve problem-solving, but that’s not the problem. The problem is we never try to solve the most meaningful problems. The problem is the right problems never make it to the queue.
Problem-solving needs a preprocess to get our minds in the right place so we’ll actually try to solve beastly problems. Too hard, too long, impossible to solve—those are the bad-boy problems that must be solved. The only way to solve them is to try. Sure, use your best tools and processes, but the act of trying is what’s most important.
The hard part for managers is how to get people’s minds in a position to try the untriable.
Scenario 1, the easiest to overcome, is when people simply don’t see a problem as a problem. The solution is to explain what the problem is and why it’s a problem, which is best done in a context of a benefit to the company, to the customer, and to solvers.
Once scenario 1 is overcome, scenario 2 usually blossoms: the full-load, too-busy syndrome. There’s no time to solve the problem, so we’re not going to try. What to do? Free up some time, and at this stage they don’t really need much time. Think prototype in 30 minutes. This prototype is nonfunctional and has not yet risen to the level of crude. The intent of the prototype is to help solvers believe there’s a potential solution. And once they believe, they will make time to advance the prototype so marketing can see it as real and as a reinvention of the industry. From there, get out of the way.
Scenario 3 is the toughest. Here the problems are simply too hard to solve—so hard they’re considered constraints. The industry works around them, and the solvers say things like: “That’s just the way it is.” “That’s just how it works.” “We’ve always done it that way.”
What to do?
First, acknowledge the difficulty of the problem. Then ask why it can’t be done and write down the top three reasons. You now have a list of the first three subproblems that must be overcome. Congratulations, you’ve advanced from scenario 3 all the way back to scenario 2 with three subproblems and no time to solve them. From there, the approach is the same: Produce a prototype in 30 minutes and ratchet up the belief in a viable solution.
I’m an advocate for tools and processes to improve problem-solving, but they’re no longer the problem. The problem is we’re not solving the right problems. We’re not because we’re not trying to solve them, and we’re not because we don’t think we can solve them. We’ve been conditioned to meet timelines. We’ve repeatedly seen the tell-tale clues that, when push comes to shove, failures are not really acceptable. We’ve done our internal risk assessment and decided trying to tackle the monsters is a bad career move.
I disagree with that internal risk assessment. I think trying to solve the monster problems is the best career move. Yes, the probability is low, but the payback is immense. With those odds, I believe smart company leaders are willing to bet on the solvers.