Solving Multi Layered Problems

Multi level issuesI can hear some readers saying to themselves ‘but I have not got any multi layered problems’. Well have I got news for you (sorry for the plagiarism there). Most problems bar the very simplest are multi level. Asking ‘Why’ over and over again is considered to be an alternative or creative technique for investigating issues. Let us consider the following scenario from a medium sized business.

Initially there are reports that sales are not as good as forecast and so the spotlight falls on the sales force. There are cries to sack and replace salesmen but one thoughtful soul begins to ask why? The following scenario unfolds:

  • Our salesmen are rubbish. Why?
  • Sales are falling. Why?
  • Our product range is out of date. Why?
  • There is no commitment from the boss. Why?
  • The boss has no time. Why?
  • The boss has time management issues.

So a while ago we were ready to sack our sales force but what is really needed is to send the boss on a time management course or perhaps get him a secretary to help with his workload.

Not only have we discovered that the initial problem and possible solution are quite a way apart, we have also revealed a multi layer problem. Just like the zipper in the picture above or a deep wound, the multi layer problem must be solved a layer at a time and from the bottom up. Solving the boss’s time management issues will not suddenly make sales leap up but it will allow he/she to devote more time to new products which will in turn lead to increased sales (if these issues are properly addressed).

And the moral of the story? Solving complex problems requires a little more effort and the problem you initially sees is not necessarily the one that needs solving!

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Getting To Grips With Metaphor

understanding metaphorKeen followers of Agatha Christie’s fictional character Miss Marple will be familiar with her technique of mapping happenings of the wider world with things she could understand that occurred in her own village of St Mary Mead. So already we have a list of things that metaphors can help us with:

  • Giving explanations to those unfamiliar with a concept
  • Examining problem situations from an alternative perspective
  • Reframing situations
  • Communicating concepts to a wider audience
  • Learning or making sense of a concept that we are not currently familiar with

Another interesting use for metaphor is within stories and for use as a more sophisticated business tool but that is an article all of its own. But how about the application of metaphor, will it work for everyone and will it work everywhere?

We can use metaphor directly in:

  • Business
  • Politics
  • Creative Industries and the media
  • Any other areas that rely on human interaction

Metaphor works best when individuals can ‘connect’ easily with metaphors i.e. they are used to metaphor or storytelling and their lives are not littered with distractions. In developed countries we are buried underneath mountains of gadgets which we either rely on to automate our lives or which we take great delight in exploring in detail – we either want it to work or we want to read the instructions in detail. We do not wish to know that our new MP3 player is like a pepperoni pizza (or perhaps a more appropriate metaphor). I am speaking generally here, those who are emotionally intelligent will be using metaphor regularly.

In developing countries there is less technology and less complexity in life generally (but life is often very hard) and so people are often closer to their emotions. Storytelling and metaphors will work well here and have a very powerful effect.

But what makes a good metaphor? During a recent debate it was suggested that a good metaphor for a modern organisation was a jigsaw  puzzle. I was not sure about this as it suggested to me that everyone has their place when in fact people can continue to contribute in many different ways. The originator of the metaphor then proceeded to explain it to me. When I suggested that a good metaphor should not require explanation they got a little upset!

A good metaphor should not require explanation. When someone suggests that a task or project is like ‘wading through treacle’ we instantly understand (unless we do not know what treacle is). Good metaphors should work for those who respond to different types of stimuli (audi, visual, kinaesthetic …) and be easily modified and shared. Imagine the details of a house given to you by an agent. You like the garage, your partner likes the bathroom and the kids like the garden. You all know that you are sharing the same idea but have different perspectives. Others can also share and modify different aspects (the dog loves the garden!!).

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Why Brainstorming Is BAD

No, BAD is not an acronym. I simply hate brainstorming and try to avoid it wherever possible. This stems from an introduction (many years ago) to the type of brainstorming that we all hate – sitting round a table with a pile of Post-It notes being told by the boss to come up with ideas. I objected because we never got anywhere and a great deal of time was wasted. I firmly believe that Brainstorming is bad.

Some people do, however, use brainstorming and have some success. There are a significant number of people who do not. Why is this?

Simples, as a well known Meerkat might say (apologies if you live outside the UK). Creative problem solving is a series of phases which alternate in using convergent and divergent thinking (focusing on one thing or generating many options). If you wish to generate ideas you need to know the objective. What are you generating ideas for and is it really the right thing to be doing? This is convergent thinking and needs to be done and there are even creative techniques for this part of the process.

Next comes a divergent phase to generate options. This is where brainstorming comes in. All techniques can be categorised according to whether they are convergent/divergent, group/solo etc so it is essential to use the correct type of technique in corresponding phase. So use brainstorming for divergence – it is a divergent technique. And this is where those who tried to get me started went terribly wrong.

We sat round a table using a divergent technique to ‘solve a problem’ without working out exactly what the problem was. The only way this would have worked is by pure luck (and we never got lucky). There are other issues of course regarding environment, group make up etc but if you use the wrong tool for the job it is not going to work no matter how hard you try.

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Working With Aliens, a useful creative technique

Working with Aliens is just one of a series of techniques in which random stimuli are used and alternative viewpoints are adopted. It works best with well defined problems or where new products or services are being considered.

To start, define the problem or situation as best you can and brief those who are taking part. A group of half a dozen or so is ideal.

Imagine that an alien spaceship has landed on earth and the aliens are looking at your problem or the object that you have described. Next try to imagine what sort of questions the aliens would be asking, what would they be curious about? Many of the checklist techniques can provide some guidance here. A possible list could be:

  • What is the purpose of this?
  • How does it work?
  • Why does it have to be this way?
  • Why do these earthlings use these materials?
  • Is it useful to me?
  • Can I eat it?
  • Why does this matter, and to whom?
  • Is it worth any money?
  • Is there any other value?
  • Could it be used for …..?

These (and other questions) should be asked with childlike innocence i.e. assume no familiarity with earthly concepts.

The questions may throw up some ideas which indicate that the original starting point was flawed. If this is the case then revisit the problem definition stage of the creative problem solving process. If some common themes emerge then record these and use them as random stimuli for further excursions or use a form of association to group some of themes to see if they suggest further options, choices or ideas.

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Entering the Age of Unreason

If you have not read Charles Handy’s book The Age of Unreason then I heavily recommend it. In a nutshell it turns things upside down and tries to change our perspective on situations. One situation that Handy writes about is the issue of Consultants in our National Health Service. As most people realise, these are the most skilled and highly paid professionals. They often like to have time away from work, sometimes on holiday, sometimes playing golf and sometimes in lucrative private practice. Problems arise with their ever rising salaries. Handy’s solution is to keep paying them the same salary but allow them to work less time for the NHS. Their hourly or daily rate thus rises but the cost to the taxpayer does not. This leaves our consultants free to play golf (not earning any further money) or work in private practice and earn even more money.

Now this solution may not be ideal but it is a possible solution and it comes about by turning the situation upside down i.e. by not sticking to reason, hence the idea of Unreason. In the current world economic situation many rules have been discarded and hence reason has gone or been suspended. There is a new world order (possibly devoid of bankers) where new rules apply, or possibly where no rules apply. The situation is ripe for people with a fertile imagination and brimming with confidence to make an impact.

This course of action builds upon our banana observations and tries to examine the boundaries of a problem. First of all let us ask some questions:

  • Is the aim to increase the cost of consultants to the NHS?
  • Do we actually have to pay them more?
  • How might consultants like to spend their time?
  • Are there other ways for consultants to earn more?
  • Can we still make use of consultants for teaching training purposes?

Probing of the boundaries of the problem often reveals previously hidden courses of action. Some of these may be conditional e.g we can have consultants working less time but only if we safeguard some teaching time. OK, so lets do that.

A company supplying parts to the automotive industry was having a tough time. They did not like spending money on repairing equipment but needed to do something. Faults were usually reported to the factory manager who either did something about it or not (the more likely scenario). Control was taken away from the production line workers.

Luckily Unreason prevailed and the workers were empowered (grudgingly at first). So what happened?

  • Leaks were fixed in air hoses
  • Less leaks meant not running all of the air compressors
  • Air compressor running could be alternated this decreasing service bills
  • A total annual saving in running costs of £10,000 per annum

An the improvements did not stop there. Their colleagues who worked on an electro plating line began experimenting and found ways to double the throughput of the plating process simply by reorganising the positioning of components on the hangers that immersed them in the plating baths.

This is not quite so dramatic as Handy’s NHS solution but is a practical illustration of a burst of Unreason helping. Next time you get stuck, try asking ‘why do we have to do it this way?’ or ‘can we try doing it this way?’ and see what happens. You’ll be surprised.

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