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Problems, Problems

Difficult problems need different thinking

Updated: 2017-11-20T03:08:17.934-08:00


The difference between skill and creativity


Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity.

NEETS, a problem too important to ignore.


Social problems are damaging for individuals and society; and are some of the most intractable problems.  One that shames us all is the tragic waste of potential for an increasing number of young people.  The statistics are truly disturbing.

There are currently around one million young people between 16 and 24 not in education, employment or training (NEETS) in England.   This represents 15% of all young people and is has increased by 50% in the last 10 years.  Even more alarming is the fact that of those that stay in this category, around 1 in 7 of these will die within 10 years – usually from drugs or suicide.

The financial cost to society is huge, estimated to be in excess of £20Bn per year –crime, benefits, health.

They are the generation of tomorrow and they have no confidence, no prospects and no future – some of them have never even seen a cow!  This is a by-product of the society we are building today.

Government initiatives and programmes have achieved little, the numbers just keep going up.  Creating supermarket ‘jobs’ is not a solution, these kids want to be valued, they want to make a contribution, they want to be useful.

Thankfully, there are people who are doing something to remedy this wrong.  Cat Zero is a charity in Hull that is doing some remarkable work with these kids.  Read this report about a BBC radio item on how Cat Zero is transforming their lives. (

Cat Zero restores their spirit - the confidence, prospects and future just follow on naturally. What a great organisation to work for.

How to get Marketing Ideas


I recently I took part in discussion to come up with some marketing ideas.  However, on this occasion I was a participant rather than a facilitator.  As a facilitator I look to make the ‘process’ work, whereas as a participant, I was more interested in the results. 

I was also able to observe somebody else managing the process, and I learned something useful.

We were a group of about six volunteers, all keen to help.  The leader went through the background to the meeting and outlined what we needed and we came up with a list of useful ideas.  But I noticed that we never managed to take the step from ‘useful’ to ‘imaginative’ ideas.  We seemed to be held back by the original context - and the youngest member of the group never said a word.  This is what I noticed;

* If you don’t ask for imaginative ideas, you are unlikely to get any.  In a group setting, most people stick to ‘safe’.
* To get imaginative ideas, you need to go ‘off piste’.  But you need to get people to agree to it.  Ask permission, some people are reluctant to go without a good reason.
* Being a facilitator is a bit like being a good manager, you have to encourage people and give them room to succeed, help them to do more than they think they can.
* Avoid practicality or detail – keep that for the implementation stage.

Challenging Assumptions


I recently watched some brilliant videos about innovation but there were some really interesting ones about questioning assumptions.  They are part of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. 

In one,  Tina Seelig, the speaker, talks about giving some students an exercise in entrepreneurism.  She gave each group $5, and told them to see how much money they could make in two hours and to give a three minute presentation on the results.

The students came up with variety of innovative schemes that met the challenge.  Most of the groups quite reasonably considered what they could do with $5 in two hours.  However, a couple of the groups did rather better.  They chose to ignore the assumptions of the initial problem – the $5.  One group booked tables at a very popular restaurant and when the usual queue formed outside, they sold their reservations to the queue.  Another group found a company that wanted to sell services to students, so the students sold their three minute slot to the company and did their presentation about the company’s services.

The link below is to a different five minute talk she gave about “Challenging Assumptions”.  In it she gets her audience to solve a simple problem.  The real lesson of the talk comes at the end.  A brilliant observation about solving problems, which I won’t give away. 

A Supply Chain Management Problem


How would you change the fishing industry?

In Japan, the aftermath of the tsunami left large parts of the country’s infrastructure in tatters.  So it was for the fishing industry.  Trawlers were lost, harbours devastated, buildings destroyed, everything gone.  A monumental problem.

An article in the New Scientist details an attempt to rebuild a fishing business in a new way.  The fundamental problem for the fishermen was that the fish markets had been destroyed. They had nowhere to sell their catch. 

So somebody had the idea of turning it into an internet business.  They equipped the boats with webcams and laptops and posted details of their catch in real-time. Their customers bought the fish as it was caught.  They did away with the physical market, and radically changed the nature of the business

Faced with total disruption of their business, they were forced to rethink the way they did business.  Normally, it would require a considerable leap of imagination to ‘do away with market’, but in this case it was taken away from them.  The fish market has been a part of the industry forever, how could you consider not having one?

Rebuilding the old infrastructure would cost millions.  This is a solution that has changed the supply chain and provided real benefits for customers.  Whether or not it solves any of the other problems the fishing industry has, is still to be decided. 

 It shows you what can be achieved when you are forced to question your assumptions.

How to reduce energy consumption


How do you reduce domestic energy use?

If you think about it logically, there a number of ways.

You can put the price up, but that penalises lower income groups. You can build or convert houses to conserve heat, but that takes a lot of time. You can also redesign domestic equipment to consume less energy, but this also takes time. Lastly, you can encourage people to use less energy by installing energy monitors that give them direct feedback of their energy use. 

All of these methods have associated drawbacks and costs.

I recently a read a report that explains a new idea.  It uses ‘social norms’ and is incredibly simple.  All you do is let people know how their energy consumption compares with other people.  You just print their performance on the energy bill.  You let them know the average for similar houses for that period, and what the best performers achieved.  That’s it, you leave the rest to them. 

Most people recognise the benefit to the community of saving energy and will be motivated to aspire to do better.  The method is ‘aspirational’.

How effective is it?  Typically, it reduces consumption by an average of 2%.  That doesn’t sound much, but it is equivalent to the reduction you get by increasing the price by 11%.  Furthermore it doesn’t ‘wear off’, it motivates people to improve their relative performance.

It is such a great solution, and as with all great ideas, costs little.

 Great solutions to difficult problems are found by thinking in a new way.

Problem Solving - The Value of Uncertainty


Should organisations avoid uncertainty? 

Usually, organisations manage their affairs in order to minimise uncertainty.  Shareholders and potential investors dislike it as it leads to uncertain returns and uncertain returns mean lower value.  It is tempting to think that organisations would be more effective if they could avoid all risk and uncertainty, especially since people naturally dislike uncertainty.

Unfortunately, we have no control over events.

Military campaigns were often planned in minute detail; every contingency was taken into account in order to eliminate uncertainty.  But modern warfare no longer enables conflicts to be planned in such detail.  Campaigns have strategic objectives, but the nature of asymmetric warfare means that day to day events are impossible to predict.  So there is little point in training officers in standardized tactics, they need to be able to interpret events and react accordingly.

I read a story about an organisation that was planning a complex reorganisation.  A senior executive distributed a handout of his presentation, but the pages were in complete disorder.  Everybody was confused, “what order are these supposed to be in?” they asked.  His reply was that ‘he did not know’.  He knew roughly what needed to be done, but he could not predict every eventuality – they needed to be able to react to events as they went along.  They would only know the right order when the task was completed.

Not only should we not avoid uncertainty, we should embrace it. It makes us better at dealing with problems.

Intuitive Problem Solving


Are there situations where the deliberative, reasoned approach to problem solving fails?

Michael Yon wrote a blog that covered the US Army activities in Iraq.  In August 2005, he wrote an entry that described Lt Colonel Kurilla’s apparent extrasensory ability to spot insurgents from amongst the din and bustle of urban Mosul:

“Some months back, a new lieutenant named Brian Flynn was riding with the Kurilla for his first three weeks, when Kurilla spotted three men walking adjacent to where Major Mark Bieger and his Stryker had been hit with a car bomb a week prior. The three men looked suspicious to Kurilla, whose legendary sense about people is so keen that his soldiers call it the “Deuce Sixth-Sense.” His read on people and situations is so uncanny it borders the bizarre.

That day, Kurilla sensed “wrong” and told his soldiers to check the three men. As the Stryker dropped its ramp, one of the terrorists pulled a pistol from under his shirt.”

Did Lt Colonel Kurilla have a unique talent?   It seems not. 

US Army officer training has traditionally been based upon ‘rational analysis’.  Whereas in the field, they are engaged in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments and they need to be able to evaluate and respond to critical situations under extreme pressure.  These are situations where there isn’t time to deliberate or to ask for advice - they rely on their intuition.  The US Army has since instigated a programme to improve junior officer’s intuitive capability. (report)

Organisations tend to rely on ‘rational’ problem solving processes because it is ‘logical’ - but some problems are qualitative rather than quantitative, and need a different approach.  We have other problem solving capabilities apart from our reason. 

We need to be bold enough to trust in them.

Intuition - A Critical Problem Solving Faculty


A true story.

A racing driving approached a blind corner at 150 mph. He couldn’t see what was round the bend.  He had been around this corner many times that day, so he had no reason to be apprehensive.  Suddenly he was overcome by an overwhelming sensation - he needed brake IMMEDIATELY.  He came slowly round the corner and saw a car crash in the centre of the track.  If he had not slowed down he would have undoubtedly have had a head-on collision. 

Inexplicably, when asked why he slowed down, he could not give a reason; he just intuitively knew that he had to stop.  Did he have some rare psychic gift, was it ESP? 


After the race he watched the recording of the event.  He saw himself approaching the corner, and everything seemed normal, there was no apparent reason to brake.  Subsequent replays showed that the crowd weren’t behaving normally.  Usually when a car approaches a corner the crowd watches its progress. This time they were not.  The crowd was watching events taking place at the crash site.  The approaching driver did not consciously notice this; however, his unconscious mind did notice and immediately warned the driver.  At no time during the event did he spot the unusual behaviour of the crowd. 

Intuition is a little understood phenomenon.  Undoubtedly, it saved the driver that day, when his conscious faculties let him down.  As rational beings, we like to think that our conscious intellect will cope with life’s challenges.

Sometimes, being rational is not sufficient.

The Rene Descartes Approach to Problem Solving


Can a car be allergic to ice cream?

Soon after buying a new Pontiac, a man made a complaint.  “Every time I buy vanilla ice cream, when I start back from the store my car won't start. If I get any other kind of ice cream, the car starts just fine”

Pontiac sent an engineer and to go with the man to the ice cream store. It was vanilla ice cream that night and, sure enough, after they came back to the car, it wouldn't start.  The engineer returned for three more nights. The first night, the man got chocolate, the car started. The second night, he got strawberry, the car started. The third night he ordered vanilla, the car failed to start.

Every night the engineer took notes: he jotted down all sorts of data, time of day, type of gas used, time to drive back and forth, etc.  He soon found that the man took less time to buy vanilla than any other flavour. Why? 

As vanilla was the most popular flavour, it was kept at the front of the store for quick service. All the other flavours were kept in the back of the store at a different counter where it took longer.  Once time became the problem - not the vanilla ice cream, the engineer quickly came up with the answer: a vapour lock.  The extra time taken to get the other flavours allowed the engine to cool down sufficiently to start, but when the man got vanilla, the engine was still too hot for the vapour lock to dissipate.

Not all problems need a creative solution, or are particularly complex. For some problems you need to be meticulous.

As Rene Descartes put it, “Divide each problem into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.”

Where Creativity Happens


When was the last time you felt outside of your comfort zone?  I don’t mean at the prospect of something bad happening, I mean more like at the prospect of speaking in public  – something that makes you feel uncomfortably conspicuous.

Most people don’t like it.  We are uncertain how we will perform or how will be received, so we get nervous.  But what happens?  most of the time our fears are not realised.  And it doesn’t even matter if we have done it before, we still get nervous.  The reason why we get so apprehensive is due to the uncertainty.  We fear the uncertainty, our emotion overwhelms our logic.

But what happens when we come through the test unscathed?  Relief certainly, but also a tremendous feeling of wellbeing and achievement.  Unfortunately, the next time an opportunity arises, our memory of the apprehension always outweighs memory of the elation.

What’s this got to do with solving problems I hear you say?  

It’s about being prepared to go places where you feel vulnerable.  Have you ever felt afraid to ask a question for fear of exposing what you don’t know? (I was once in a meeting where it turned out that nearly everybody in the room was afraid to ask the same question). 

It’s about choosing uncertainty; willing to risk appearing foolish because you made a crazy suggestion. 

Being bold.

The Creative Paradox - Overcoming Uncertainty


Why do people want to reject a creative idea?  You can see it happening in meetings when a solution that is just too novel is suggested.  People disengage with the process – it’s not for them. 

I read an interesting research paper about creativity.  The research concerned a paradox of creativity.  Generally, people think ‘creative solutions’ are a good thing.  Unfortunately, dealing with the consequences of novel, or creative solutions sometimes makes people uneasy and tense.  This is because a novel solution introduces uncertainty – it may not work.  The consequence of this is that people are quite happy to reject the novel solution, even though the wildly improbable idea could be a real winner – they don’t want to be associated with something that sounds like a silly idea. 

The initial idea about looking for a creative solution is logical.  If you have tried all the logical ideas, a creative one might just come up trumps.  The trouble is, people often prefer to avoid uncertainty because of the risk it may entail.  The uncertainty triggers an emotional response which overrules our logic.  

How can we overcome this?  It is our reaction to the feelings of uncertainty that is the problem; we need a different way to react. 

There is a way to do it, it’s called Improv.  Put simply, Improv is a group of people performing an unscripted play. They make it up as they go, nothing is certain, they have no idea how the play will develop.  Somebody suggests a character, then somebody else speaks to him, every line of the play is improvised.  The key point is that it is not possible to fail; anything that any participant says simply develops the plot. 

This way, uncertainty is driving the creativity instead of killing it.

Try it, (its also good for getting people to work together) or get in touch if you need some help. 

There are a few rules:-

How to Solve an Impossible Problem


Here is another story from ‘The Shadow of the Sun’ by Ryszard Kapuscinski  (one of the best books I have read, beautifully written).

It concerns a rather improbable method of trading that used to take place between the Tuareg people of the Sahara and the Bantu people of the Sahel.  For centuries a great enmity has existed between them, villages burnt, people killed and enslaved - made worse in times of drought.  Both groups had valuable commodities to trade, the Tuareg salt, and the Bantu gold.  But such was the level of fear between them, it was impossible to see how they could trade. 

 How did they solve that seemingly impossible problem?   You would assume that they simply traded through a third party, but for some reason, this is not so.

If fact, they contrived an extraordinary solution. 

When the Tuareg arrived at the trading location, they left salt in orderly piles.  They then retreated half a day’s travel.  The Bantu duly approached and left a measure of gold by each pile of salt.  After they had retreated, the Tuareg returned and if they deemed the amount of gold to be sufficient, they took it and left the salt, if not, they left both the gold and salt in place and retired.  The Bantu returned and either took their salt, or added more gold or took it away. This exchange continued until there was no further exchange.  The transactions took place with neither party seeing the other, it was called ‘silent trading’.

Silent trading took place for hundreds of years, but how did it come about?  How did such an extraordinary level of trust come about between two violently opposed groups?

Given our usual assumptions about trading, an ‘incremental’ solution doesn’t seem possible; they obviously found another way round the problem.

Using Visual Metaphors to Overcome problems


Look at this image*.  If you were a robot, what would you see?  I think I can say with some confidence that you would see a lot of colour pencils and a pencil sharpener.


But you aren’t a robot, you see a zip – and it isn’t as if you have to concentrate, it jumps out at you.  But there is no zip.

This is not a skill we need to learn, it is inherent.  We pick out the key features and make associations with other objects or concepts that may have similar features.  We create ‘visual metaphors’. 

This is an extraordinary gift that we all have – to be able to see a zip from a bunch of pencils.  What it does is to expand our thinking.  It enables us to think far more creatively.  Frederick Law Olmstead described his design for a connected system of parks as an ‘emerald necklace’.  Visual metaphor is much used in architecture; - the Sydney Opera House’s shell forms reflect the image of yachts in Sydney Harbour.

It is less commonly used in engineering, but a significant example is in the development of supersonic flight.  Scientists were struggling with the effects of shock waves at trans-sonic airspeeds.  This was overcome when a key figure thought of the airflow over the fuselage as being in the form of ‘water pipes’.  By redesigning the fuselage to match the contours of the ‘pipes’, the problem was overcome. 

Perhaps a better known example is the struggle that the chemist Kekule had when trying to understand the shape of the benzene molecule.  He dreamed of a snake eating its own tail, and realized that benzene comes in the shape of a ring.

Visual metaphors provide stepping stones, clues that can lead to seeing a solution. 

Each of us has a fantastic visual ability, by pushing ourselves to see something new in the familiar will help overcome the most intractable problems.

*To see more of this artist's work, see

Tension - The Essence of Creative Problem Solving


I have always thought that art and problem solving have something in common.  It has often been said that creating art is ‘in the seeing’ - reflecting what the artist sees.  So it is with problem solving, seeing the  problem in a new way leads to an insight that brings about the solution.  ‘Seeing’ is much about leaving out  details as including them, and seeing from novel perspectives provides insights both in art and problems.For example, look at this picture (email readers view image here).  We easily recognise it as a man’s face, but the colours are completely wrong.  No face was ever coloured like that, it is an impossible image, yet somehow it works.Furthermore, we are drawn to the image.  This is because of the ‘tension’ between what we know to be the normal facial colours and those in the picture.  Our brain tries to ‘resolve’ the tension between what we are expecting and what we see, by imagining the possible lighting that would create the startling colour effects.  Personally, I see a wet face perhaps in a brightly lit street full of neon lighting.  It works.Edgar Degas put it well, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."The artist has set us a problem of how to make sense of something that is ‘wrong’.  He has set up a tension in the picture that we have to overcome. We don’t just say, “well that’s impossible”, we ‘solve’ it by creating the circumstances in which it could be true. When we work it out, we gain a new perspective about the image. There is no logic involved here, intuitively we figure out how to make sense of the image.Some problems don’t have logical solutions, and intuition can provide some help.  By setting up a tension - an internal conflict, we can get a new perspective on the problem and gain an insight.This is the essence of creative problem solving.For this and similar images, go to[...]

One Way to solve an African problem


I have been reading “The Shadow of the Sun” by Ryszard Kapuscinski. Its about his life as the Africa correspondent for a Polish newspaper and is a collection of anecdotes of his life there.

In one episode, he was living in Lagos, Nigeria.  His apartment was in one of the less upmarket areas and consequently was regularly broken into. Putting secure locks on the doors would prove to be ineffective as it would merely attract more attention.

One day he met and got to know Suleiman, a man from northern Nigeria, who knew his landlord. He mentioned his problem to Suleiman and some time later Suleiman took him to a market that sold witch doctors medicines, talismans, etc. Suleiman told him to buy a certain bunch of expensive white rooster feathers. When they returned to his apartment, Suleiman arranged the feathers and tied them to the top of the doorframe.

He was never burgled again.

Now we all know the chicken feathers are unlikely to deter any potential thief.  How could that possibly work? To western eyes, it was no solution at at all, but the point is, it worked in the culture of Lagos.

Perhaps sometimes we should view the solutions to problems from different perspectives.

Sometimes a Problem needs a Radical Solution


1n the 1990’s, Cook County Hospital (of ER fame) had a problem.  The Emergency Department had to deal with 250,000 patients a year. 

One of the biggest claims on their limited resources was heart attacks.  About 30 people a day came into the ER with chest pains.  Diagnosis was often inconclusive.  Patient’s answers were often unclear, and ECG tests far from perfect.  The only sure tests took hours – the one thing they didn’t have.  So the doctors had to make an estimate.  The trouble was that different doctors made different estimates – no matter how trained or experienced they were.  Add to this the risk of malpractice, and the doctors admitted people just to be sure.  Unfortunately, they had neither the beds nor the money to deal with them.

An incremental change would not be enough, they needed something radical.

The head of the Department of Medicine turned to a cardiologist who was involved with some  mathematicians who were interested in using statistics for identifying subatomic particles.  The cardiologist had developed an algorithm that identified three of the critical risk factors for diagnosis in conjunction with the ECG.  These were;

1. Is the pain unstable angina?
2. Is there fluid in the patient’s lungs?
3. Is the patient’s systolic blood pressure below 100?

These three tests were the works of years of research, but it was only research, no testing had been done.

Eventually, they trialled the algorithm at the hospital, after two years they compared the results with the doctors usual estimates.  The new method was 70% better than the doctor’s usual method.

The point is that even with the best training and experience, severe conditions can undermine even the best practice.  Sometimes something new is required.  Because conditions at the hospital were so demanding, they had to try something radically different.

The full story can be found in Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink, The Power of Thinking without Thinking"

Logical Solutions do not come from Intuitive Thinking


There is a curious paradox in economics called the Giffen Paradox.  Generally, if the price of a good increases, consumption decreases.  The so called ‘Giffen goods’ do not behave in this way.  For example, in poor communities, if the price of bread increases, consumption increases, not decreases, a rather counterintuitive response.  The reason is that poor people have no disposable income, so if the price of bread increases, they buy less meat (for example), and actually end up buying more bread to make up the difference. 

Counter-intuitive behaviour is all around us.  Where do most pedestrian road accidents occur?  Unbelievably, it is at pedestrian crossings. 

In fact, as soon as you start thinking about it, the more you come up with counter-intuitive results - road traffic, we have learned that increasing the road capacity does not reduce traffic jams.  The list is endless.

What seemed to be a ‘logical’ solution, in fact is not.  Our ‘logic’ is in fact our intuition, and it is this that has failed us.   We have relied on our intuition rather than our logic.   If we were to look at these problems more fully, - possibly from a systems perspective, we might be better able to deal with these problems. 

Sometimes this effect is called the ‘Law of unintended consequences’ – something that is blindingly obvious once we see it, sometimes it is called a paradox, but it is our thinking that is at fault, not the world.

Implementing a solution that our intuition tells us is correct is an inappropriate use of intuition, we may end up with a rude surprise.

How we use Abstraction for Solving Problems


Probably the single-most important capability your brain possesses is that of abstraction.  It is the ability to identify particular features of something to enable you to create a concept that groups all similar abstractions.

Without it you would not be able to think.   Take bones, for example.  There must be a zillion different kinds of bones in the world, all different shapes and sizes.  But when you pick one up you know it’s a bone- you may not know what kind of bone, but it’s a bone.  Your brain is able to look at a collection of different objects- such as bones, and note their characteristics and define their essential nature.  If you could not do that, all bones would be unique, and have no connection to any other bone; they would be completely different objects.

Think of it this way, without the power of abstraction, if I said to you ‘imagine –a  bone’, you would not be able to do it.  That’s how important it is.  It enables us to think about objects and ideas.

It is also a powerful tool for dealing with problems.  Without some degree of abstraction, every problem is unique, with a unique solution.  But if you could make it similar to another problem, or see ways in which it might be similar to another problem, finding a solution is going to be easier. 

The greater the level of abstraction, the simpler the problem becomes and the greater the number of potential solutions may present themselves.

The Gordian knot was famous for its intractability - no-one could untie it.  Alexander the Great did not see it in the same way as everybody else; he saw it as a metaphor, so he was able to come up with a simple and original solution.

Sometimes, solving difficult problems is all in the seeing.

Overcoming Inhibitions is the Key to Solving Difficult Problems


Imagine you were at a kids party and you were doing the entertainment, playing the fool and talking nonsense, it probably wouldn’t make you feel awkward.

Now imagine doing the same thing at work.  Feels a bit different doesn’t it?

Talking about stuff that doesn’t make sense is not easy for most people at work – because work is ‘more important’ than a kids party. You either don’t want to look silly in front of your boss, or you don’t want to look silly in front of your subordinates.  It’s probably worse for managers as they are the ones we look to for making sense. 

Creative problem solving sessions can be hampered because sometimes people have difficulty in engaging with a process that requires people to be fanciful.

Our education and upbringing condition our minds to disregard what we see as nonsense or irrelevant to the problem at hand, our minds inhibit irrelevant ideas.  Creative people are known to pay much more attention to ‘irrelevant’ ideas; they are ‘cognitively disinhibited’. 

Therefore to become more productive in creative problem solving, we need to overcome our inhibitions.  Fortunately, there are some exercises that we can do to help.  Storytelling is one example; each member of the group contributes a line to a story, without reference to the preceding line.  Another example, is to read a sentence out and get each member to finish it so that it does not make sense  (this is an exercise that has been used as a test for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, where people have difficulty inhibiting their normal cognitive processes).

When we can feel free to make outlandish suggestions and ask silly questions, we are able to break away from the limitations that logic imposes on our thinking.



Finding solutions to difficult problems is not always about struggling to find a novel solution.  Sometimes the difficulty is a matter of complexity.  A problem might comprise of a large number of factors, each of which has a complex interaction with the other factors.  Complex problems may also be difficult to deal with because it may not be clear what the ideal solution looks like.  For example, social mobility is a burning political issue, but how do you measure it, what constitutes success?

The goal is to reveal the key relationship(s) that may be obscured by too many complex interactions. 

There is more than one approach to these problems.  Here is an example from a TED talk detailing the complex problems facing the NATO forces in Afganistan (its amazing what you can get into 3 minutes).  As Eric Berlow stresses, the idea is to see relationships that cause you to ask new questions.  From a highly detailed map of the factors, he extracts three basic principles.

Alternatively, there is an approach called Concept Mapping which was developed by  William M. Trochim.  This endeavours to discover underlying structures and relationships using a ‘qualitative’ statistical approach.   I showed that in Assumption Mapping, the idea was to place factors within a grid depending upon how they rated against defined key parameters.  Concept Mapping enables us to discover the key criteria amongst an array of confusing and complex factors.  Discovering these parameters enables us to simply the problem and gain new insights.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes, and ‘qualitative’ problems are amongst the most intractable.  These are useful tools that can help cut through the confusion and provide clarity and enlightenment.

The Awkward Squad


One of the things that fascinates me about creative problem solving, is its contrary nature. 

For example, over the years I have run countless meetings and I rather pride myself in being quite good at keeping the meeting moving along, sticking to the agenda and getting input from all concerned.  One of the things that I think I am particularly good at, is not letting people wander off the point.  Every now and then someone will have bee in their bonnet about something and want to make a point that is not relevant.  I wish I had a pound for every time I said “we digress”, or “can we deal with that in ‘any other business’” -  I’m sure we all know people who have a bit of a reputation for wandering all over the place. 

This control works well for ‘process driven problems’ which are encountered at most meetings.  But when you need a creative solution to a problem, this is what you DON’T want.  A tight logical process is not helpful.   You want ideas that are not obviously relevant, because they might spark a better idea in someone else.

So, if you need a creative solution to a problem, invite all those people who find it impossible to stick to the point, disrupting peoples thought processes and not sticking to the point is exactly what you want. 

Powerpoint Poisoning- Killing Creativity


I read an interesting article* about ‘what kills meetings’ – why meetings became unproductive and boring.   One of the symptoms was ‘lack of engagement’; people either took no part, or became hostile to the process.

It turned out that the main factor was the use of Powerpoint presentations.  This is because they imposed too much structure.  They provided a ‘fait accomplis’, in which people were either not required to participate, or had not been given a chance to contribute.  The people were either indifferent or energised for the wrong reasons.

This is not dissimilar to what can happen when people are supposed to be creative, they don’t want to sound foolish – they are used to coming up with sensible, logical ideas, not ridiculous ones and they dismiss the process and do not engage.

What particularly interested me was that one of the ways for overcoming this was the use of questions.  Questions energise.  People cannot resist reacting to a question (it is the reason why quiz shows have been so popular since the beginning of television).  When somebody asks a question in a meeting, people are being asked to contribute – it engages people and the meeting becomes more interactive.

Think about it, in a presentation, all you are required to do is listen, you want people to think and the best way to make people think is to question.

 But, as the article notes, this can be a source of uncertainty – you never quite know where it will take you.

Powerpoint presentations are great if you want to explain something, but should play no part in complex problem solving.  If you have a problem to solve, then one of the ground rules should be
- no Powerpoint presentations.

The Parent's Dilemma - Intractable Problems


Difficult problems do not always require a creative solution.  Some problems are seemingly intractable and all the solutions on offer are undesirable.

The parent’s dilemma can be described as follows.

Their child wants something that may not be in their best interest, what does the parent do?

a.    Give them what they want, knowing that it could be harmful in the long term,
b.    Deny the child’s request, knowing they will be upset and unhappy.

This is a classic situation that many parents will be familiar with, and typifies many problems -  how to choose between two unacceptable solutions.  (I recognise that some parents will have no problem resolving this problem either way, but hopefully we can see the principle).

Rene Descartes advised that when dealing with problems, ‘to examine every part of the problem in the smallest detail’.  If we apply this dictum to this problem, we find that each option combines three factors, an emotional outcome, an act and an immediate link between them.  The key to dealing with the problem is to separate the link between the two. 

For example, we could link an undesirable factor with a counterbalancing factor.  So, we could grant the child’s wish on condition that it is dependant on something that is in the child’s interest.  This will probably generate a few moans, but no outrage and the good deed will offset the harm - and assuage the parent’s guilt.

This may sound like a flippant example, but the principle is sound.  By examining every element of the problem and breaking the assumed link between factors, it is possible to bring about an acceptable solution to a difficult problem.

Questioning Assumptions


The singlemost important device for solving problems is,
- the question.

When Edwin Land's daughter was a small child, she wasn't highly educated and she wasn't especially clever.  However, she once asked her father why they had to wait for photographs to be developed.  Edwin Land was a scientist and started thinking about the problem.  As a consequence, the Polaroid camera was developed.

It would have been very easy to take for granted the fact that you had to wait for photographs to be developed, as it had always be so.  But because she knew nothing about the process, she was not inhibited by her experience (so much for received wisdom).

The questions we ask need not be complex, technical or brilliant.  If the daughter had qualified the question by asking if it was possible to get the photos 2-3 days quicker, a better process may have been developed, but it is unlikely that a revolutionary one would have resulted. 

It is the simple questions that provoke the richest ideas because they do not constrain our thinking and they test our fundamental assumptions.

Questions enable us first to identify our assumptions, and then to ask why they are so.

Solving a difficult problem is not a matter of 'scientific breakthrough' but of questioning your assumptions and breaking away from habitual thinking. When faced with a particularly difficult problem, we need to be bold with our questions. 

Your goal is to find a gap, an inconsistency, an exception, a condition whereby your assumptions do not hold.   This provides you with a new perspective and a path a solution.

There is a hierarchy of questioning that will challenge your assumptions

1. Find out what assumptions you are making
2. Ask if they are true
3. Doubt that they are true
4. Deny that they are true