Problem Solving Through Boundary Relaxation

Boundary examinationIn business we often seem to be constrained by all sorts of things from statutory rules (red tape), availability of resources and even our own thinking. Sometimes we just make things far too complex.

I remember a time when I was at school (quite a while ago now) when I often ended up in detention after school. Often we sat staring at the wall waiting for detention to end (and sometime I used to take sweets from the jar in the head mistress’ office (but thats another story). Sometime we would, however, be left in the care of a teacher who tried to be too clever. One day we were asked to write an essay. ‘Can I write about a red London Bus?’ I asked. My friend has already been primed to ask about writing an essay all about a green London Bus (you can almost see what is coming can’t you?). The teacher agreed.

My essay started a little like the following:

Once upon a time there was a red London Bus. The red London Bus had four wheels and an engine. Now this red London Bus with four wheels an engine and a poster on the side was travelling down the road ….  

You can see how this would build into a story that would infuriate a teacher. Don’t forget there was a green version also!

A pair of infuriating schoolboys had simplified the rules surrounding essay writing for that particular occasion and we had written essays that conformed to the requirements. We had relaxed the boundaries and made life simple whilst the teacher had made some assumptions, he had not tested the ‘givens’, the rules that normally apply in these cases. He could (should) have given us a topic, made us create an essay plan and stipulated the length of the essay.

This was a little like a business transaction in which one side tries to test and possibly manipulate the apparent constraints upon them whilst the other party makes assumptions that are based on previous experiences.

So next time you have a tricky business issue to solve, try seeing if there is any ‘wriggle room’, any way that some of the boundaries can be stretched or even removed. It is often worthwhile trying a little boundary relaxation.

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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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The brilliance of creative chaos

Are we able to think clearly when surrounded by mess because chaos is inherent in all our minds, even those of the great writers and thinkers, asks Clive James. Is this creative chaos?

The great thing about this slot is that I can pontificate. But a wise pontificator should always remember that he won’t solve a global problem in 10 minutes, or even do much more than usefully touch on it in 10 hours. There are two main reasons for that. One reason is that the global problems are, by their nature, devilishly complicated. But everyone knows, or should know, that.

The other reason is less obvious, because it lies within the nature of the pontificator. He, or she – in my case he – speaks with a special pontificating voice: integrated, judicious even in its doubts, purporting to contain the distilled wisdom of a lifetime’s experience. Almost always, I suspect, this voice is at odds with the personality from which it emerges, and in my case the discrepancy is so glaring that even I can spot it. Read the full article here.

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Give Your Colleagues A Whack On The Head!

Now that I have your attention, please do no resort to violence, I just want to wake you up!

Organisations, just like people, can get set in their ways. Relying on established ways of working and fixed patterns when solving problems not only stifles innovation, but can lead to a narrow perspective and moments of self delusion when you kid yourself that things are going ok ,and there is nothing else you can do. Here are three ways to help your organisation  wake up:

  • Challenge existing rationale. Every organisation has shared explanations for doing things the way they do. Be critical about these explanations and ask the question ‘why is this standard practice?’
  • Expose faulty either/or thinking and decision making. Sometimes we are forced to make irrational choices about how to work. Don’t let your choice be A or B. Propose options  C or D as new ways of working and evaluate them all.
  • Focus on the long term. By focusing on the  near future you will be more inclined just to keep on doing the same old things. Help to wake up your colleagues by letting them see the bigger picture, and understand not only the short-term gains but also the long-term consequences.

Be gentle!

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The Power Of ‘Why?’

Sometimes it is ‘obvious’ what our problem is and so the answer is obvious too. This may very well be the case, but just in case it is not or perhaps to uncover a better solution we might need to uncover the real reason for something going wrong.

Problems and issues also tend to be multi layered and we have to scratch below the surface to work out what is really happening. Be careful when using it as continuously asking someone else ‘Why?’ may make them defensive.

Imagine the simple scenario ‘sales are falling’. One possible assumption might be that our sales people are no good at their job so we might replace them or retrain them. First, let us ask ‘Why?’

Q. Why are sales falling?
A. Because customers don’t like our products

Q. Why don’t they like our products?
A. Because they are outdated, not as cool as this year’s model

Q. Why are our products outdated?
A. Because we have not developed any new ones for 5 years

Q. Why have we not done this before?
A. Because the boss has not allowed us

Q. Why has the boss behaved in this way?
A. Because they have no spare time to spend

In this simple example our initial assumption of having a poor sales force is incorrect, the underlying issue is that the boss (possibly you!) has no time either because of high workload or poor time management. We can also see that the issue has multiple layers and unless the issues at lower layers are resolved then our initial problem is unlikely to be properly resolved.

You could thus use this for:

  • Identifying the need for a new product or service
  • Determining why your competitors are more attractive to customers
  • Asking why your costs are higher than they should be

… and many more.

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