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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Which way does your banana bend?

Which way does your banana bend? I often ask this question (even in polite conversation) and receive a blank stare from the recipient. The inference is, of course, that bananas do not bend in any particular direction. They are neither left nor right handed, erect or droopy, they just bend. Try grabbing a banana and placing it in front of you on table. Does it bend to the left or the right? Now turn it over, you should find that it now bends in the opposite direction.

Alas you do not have magic powers of banana bend reversal, but you have just demonstrated one of the most important characteristics of solving problems. You sometimes need the ability to look at a problem from a new perspective or just turn it on its head. I recently painted the outside walls of my house and was not looking forward to balancing precariously at the top of a ladder. It would have taken a long time to paint such a large area. But why not stay on the ground and take the paint roller up to the top of the walls? After a search in my local DIY store I found a suitable extending 5m pole and attachments that fitted to the top. I reckon that it took half the time it would have taken at the top of the ladder.

So next time you are faced with an issue, avoid rushing into the task (unless it really is that simple) and think about what you really want. In my case putting paint (relatively neatly) onto the walls of my house. I could stand anywhere as long as I could control paint delivery. Turn the problem on its head or try looking at it from a different (or different person’s) point of view.

A new building in France has a steep sloping roof covered in grass. The problem? How on earth to cut it. You could imagine all sorts of elegant engineering or bio engineering solutions but the solution used was to use hover mowers suspended on ropes from above.

Then of course, we also have that wonderful story of writing in space. The American solution? Develop a hugely expensive zero gravity biro. The Russian solution? Use a pencil!

So the next time you have a problem banana, try taking a look at it from all possible angles.

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The Magic Of Metaphor

First of all what is a metaphor? Here I use the term metaphor and simile interchangeably but technically a simile is simply saying that one thing is like something else and a metaphor is saying that one thing is something else. A simile is thus a metaphor but a metaphor is not necessarily a simile. Enough of the terminology!

Sometimes exaggeration or humour might be involved to help make the point. Many men might use the metaphor of their mother-in-law being a dragon. They are not saying that she literally breathes fire and flies but that she might be a little fierce and protective of her daughter (or dominating her husband!!). You get the point.

Metaphor can help us all in a number of ways. For instance I am a very visual person so when people insist on describing things to me using just words I have to try very hard to take in all of the information. If, however, someone says that the situation is like say, finding a needle in a haystack then I comprehend the situation quite quickly i.e. I know the amount of effort required and the likely outcome. To reach a wider audience you might need to try using metaphors that rely on different language for those people who respond to audio or kinesthetic stimuli.

I often use a particular type of metaphor when explaining the usefulness of using creative or alternative techniques to examine a problem situation. I’m sure that many readers will have experienced the horrors of hunting for a house or flat. You have a look at the particulars and one person focuses on the kitchen, another on the garden and another on the bedrooms or garage. All of these individuals are seeing the same situation but from different viewpoints. So just like viewing a property we can examine other scenarios (physical or otherwise) from different perspectives. One or more of these might even provide a solution (in the case of a problem) or suggest a course of action.

Keen 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. Rather like the argument that I put forward in a previous article regarding creativity in developed and developing countries, education also plays a part. So once again, who is best placed to take advantage of techniques such as this? Developed countries have a head start in the race to develop and are thus nearer the finishing line, but developing countries have the potential to be the faster runners!!!

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Creative Management Challenge

Below are four simple questions, the Creative Management Challenge. Try to answer them all before looking at the answers.

  • Q1 How do you put a giraffe into a fridge?
  • Q2 How do you put and elephant into a fridge?
  • Q3 The King of the Jungle is holding a meeting for all of the animals. One of them is not there. Which one?
  • Q4 You are standing on the bank of an Alligator infested river and have to get to the other side. What do you do?

A survey by Accenture found that around 90% of Managers are likely to answer all of the questions incorrectly. Many school children under the age of six will actually get these questions right. What does this say about Management thinking? And now for the answers:

  • A1 Open the fridge, put the giraffe inside, close the fridge.
  • A2 Open the fridge, remove the giraffe, put the elephant inside, close the fridge.
  • A3 The elephant. The elephant is in the fridge.
  • A4 You swim across the river because all the alligators are attending the gathering.

I can already hear you say “Its not fair” and “they are for kids”. This is what the questions are trying to find out:

  • Q1 checks to see if you try to make simple things complicated and make assumptions about problem boundaries. Nobody actually said that the fridge was not big enough to put a giraffe inside!
  • Q2 tests your ability to consider previous actions. Who says that they are four separate questions?
  • Q3 simply tests your memory.
  • Q4 checks to see how quickly you learn. After all you must have got question 4 correct if you were a successful Senior Manager.

Try these on your colleagues and see what happens.

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Solving problems creatively – Boundary Relaxation

Solving problems creatively using boundary relaxation is easy but not often tried. Here’s how it works.

A problem boundary is the imaginary line between what a problem is, must be, should be, or could be, and what it isn’t, mustn’t be, shouldn’t be, or couldn’t be. This approach works by creating awareness of the different components of the boundary and then seeing how far they can be loosened. Here are some ways of making a boundary more visible.

NOTing the problem statement Take each significant term in a problem statement and define it more clearly by saying what it is not, for example:

How to develop (not replace, alter, reduce,…)
the motorway (not other roads, airlines, ships, … )
network (not piecemeal)
to allow for (not compel)
the gradual (neither imperceptible nor rapid)
replacement (not augmentation)
of rail (not air, ships, …)
transport (not pleasure use, prestige use)

Boundary conditions not mentioned in the problem statement may often be found by looking elsewhere e.g. budgets, policy statements, market analyses, etc., and by ‘asking around’. Sometimes you may need to ‘read between the lines’. Once a boundary feature has been identified dearly, then it is usually relatively simple to ask yourself and/or others involved:

‘Would it make the problem any easier to solve if this part of the boundary could be altered in some way?’

‘If so, under what circumstances could it be altered or ignored?’

It may be easier to get temporary leeway around a boundary by discreetly ‘bending’ it and making sure nothing goes wrong, than by trying to get formal permission to alter it. Many are familiar with the saying ‘Remember it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.’

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