Archive for the ‘Problem solving ’ Category

Summer Reading

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

Two conversation-shaping books

Here are my Summer Reading picks for those who go for both engaging narrative and penetrating insight. I’m recommending two distinctly different books by writers who don’t want to merely inform their readers; they want to shape the conversation. Both authors accomplished what they set out to do.

Tim Harford | Adapt – Why Success Always Starts with Failure

“Today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions; the world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex. Instead, we must adapt—improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up rather than the top down, and take baby steps rather than great leaps forward.” ~Tim Harford

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Wicked Problems, A Defining Challenge

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Reverberating events

The uprisings in the Arab world are capturing worldwide attention not only because we’re witnessing history in the making, but because the changes are bound to affect us all. We live in a world that’s interconnected in ways that were hard to fathom only a few years ago. Interconnectedness is creating new challenges with social implications that traditional institutions and leaders aren’t equipped to handle.

The clashes across the Middle East and North Africa are only the latest example of unforeseen events that reverberate across regional boundaries. Before that, the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. sparked a deep global recession that affected more sectors than anything economists had seen before. As some economies began recovering during the following year, Europe’s mounting debt crisis triggered  a cascade of new problems in distant economies.

Today’s challenges, geopolitical or otherwise, are more difficult to predict, understand and handle than the kinds of problems we’ve seen until recently. As the world grows more interconnected, we become more exposed to what design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called “wicked problems” which are substantially harder to define and solve than so-called “tame” problems.

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The Generative Conversation

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

In his insightful book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson tells the story of Kevin Dunbar, a McGill University social psychologist, who sought to figure out in the early ’90s how research scientists generate breakthrough ideas. Dunbar videotaped and interviewed researchers working in a variety of settings.

In tracking the activities and relative successes of his subjects, Dunbar found that the greatest number of breakthroughs occurred not when scientists were peering into their microscopes, as one might suspect, but when they were talking with one another at meetings.

Why? When chatting with their colleagues who worked on other projects, the researchers tended to re-conceptualize their own work to be understood. In doing so, new ideas emerged and, occasionally, some were fruitful.

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Out of Africa, Help for Haiti

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

News from Port-au-Prince

It’s been a week since the Port-au-Prince earthquake and images streaming in are helping us to grasp the region’s boundless misery and desperation. Hundreds of thousands have perished, and despite our best efforts, more will die and suffer for myriad reasons including the inability to deliver relief where it’s needed.

Despite the gut-wrenching news, it’s heartening to learn that determined, inventive people are finding ways to alleviate the suffering and, in some cases, save lives.

One of the more interesting stories is about an open-source project called Ushahidi which takes its name from the Swahili word for “testimony”.  The software, developed during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, enables text messages to be mapped by time and location.  Anyone with an internet connection, regardless of the device they use to access it, can send a text message, an image or an email. Ushahidi can also store data offline for later synchronization.

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Doing the Next Right Thing

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Several years ago, I discovered Laurence Gonzalez’s (’03) book, Deep Survival – Who Lives, Who Dies and Why about individuals  surviving “do or die” situations.  Recently, I glanced through it again thinking it might be helpful for business people grappling with the challenges of this economy.  I couldn’t put it down.  Now, I’m  convinced of its value for anyone going through any kind of crisis.

Gonzalez studied hundreds of survival stories and presents many of them in his book. He shares tales of people surviving harrowing crashes and others lost in the wilderness.  Fascinated by their travails, he ponders why some people make it, while others perish? What general lessons can we learn from how the survivors behaved?

Gonzalez finds that one of the key features “deep survivors” possess is the capacity to focus on “doing the next right thing”.  Instead of becoming overwrought, survivors accept what’s happening earlier in the process and focus on extricating themselves.  They reason, “Okay, I’m here. This is really happening. Now I’m going to do the next right thing…”

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Succeeding in a Challenging Environment

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

The events of the last quarter have radically changed the game plan for service providers around the world. Business rules are being rewritten; success is being measured by new criteria. Investments in your business must produce greater returns as “breakevens” are reduced.  In these times, it makes sense to rethink what you offer and how you present it to your customers. 

While it seems like everything has changed, the axioms of business remain constant. Customers still want exceptional “value” – in fact they’re demanding it. They’re more motivated than ever to look for it. If they can’t get it from you, they’ll go to your rivals. They’ll find value in new, atypical ways to get their needs met.  Help them solve their problems and the market will beat a path to your door.

Delivering exceptional value in lean times requires smarter tools and an atmosphere that encourages collaboration and continuous innovation—always thinking: how can we make this better, cutting out what’s unnecessary.

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An Intregrative Crisis Response

Monday, October 27th, 2008

rogermartinsbook_osprey-imageI’ve written before about Integrative Thinking (or “Design Thinking“), a creative problem-solving approach described by Roger Martin, Dean at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business and others.

Martin defines integrative thinking as the ability to deal with the tensions of competing solutions to a problem. Instead of choosing one solution at the expense of the other, the practioner generates a solution integrates both solutions.

In his ’07 book, The Opposable Mind, Martin argues that integrative thinking is superior to conventional thinking which consists of “accpeting unattractive and unpleasant tradeoffs”.

This concept is relevant to how government and business leaders ought to approach the financial crisis.  Instead of deciding between implementing tax cuts or a stimulus package – seemingly contradictory models – why not try both?  Instead of businesses merely cutting operating costs, why not implement initatives that preserve high margin business increase customer retention and profit per customer.

Martin considers these issues in an October 8  interview. He applies integrative thinking to the vexing challenges associated with the economic crisis affecting today’s leaders.

Sketching for Dollars

Monday, June 16th, 2008

A colleague asked me why I rely on freehand sketching, especially during the early stages of problem solving.  I think I said that sketching helps me conceptualize and frame problems.  It’s a process which is productive and fun, and one I’ve taken for granted.

I prefer those big artists’ sketch pads with sharpened, soft lead pencils to illustrate elements in the form of geometric shapes and arrows.

I draw big expansive boxes and arrows pointing to the various elements of complicated problems.  By drawing those shapes and then inspecting them, new relationships emerge. These “emergent properties” seem stifled when typing ideas on a keypad.

I’ve yet to discover digital tools that can be substituted for sketching. Illustrator or InDesign are too cumbersome.  I’ve had success with hosted white-boarding tools when which work fine for collaborating.  But when it comes to  developing fresh ideas, nothing beats the speed and freedom of free-hand sketching.

Once a concept is clarified on paper, it’s translatable to a digital format for sharing with others.  One graphic is worth pages of text.

Why sketching works seems self-evident. For one thing, it’s liberating to be away from the screen while still working.  I enjoy sitting on the front porch in the early morning with a dense cup of French Roast while sketching my what’s next issues.  What a great way to greet the day!  Sketching on airplanes works well, too.

Another thing is that “mistakes,” which would be erased in a digital medium are in tact and they’re often crucial to  creative discovery. And what a useful way to observe one’s pattern of thinking by inspecting the progression of “problem models”.

I was going to add something about tapping the creative tension between design thinking and systems thinking but, in retrospect, I’m noteven sure what that means.  But sketching’s guiding principle is: if you can’t explain something with a simple drawing, it’s probably not ready for prime time.

Sketching feels effortless. Maybe because I’ve had so much time to perfect it.  Afterall, I learned the technique in kindergarten.

Still, it does bring to mind Czikzentmihalyi’s concept of “flow” and that exhilerating sense of timelessness, concentration and engagement we enjoy when we’re playing. Where work and play come together, you’ll find me there…

Design-minded Virgin America

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Before launching their operation, Virgin America set out to create a distinctive customer experience to differentiate their brand.  They succeeded by creating a breakthrough on-board service product about which I commented in an earlier post.

VA’s success stems from their attitude that the customer is at the center of their universe.  They relied on service design – the art and science of devising an environment that enables the customer to enjoy a rich, satisfying experience.  Unfortunately, it’s an approach that has been largely ignored by the industry.

Design-minded managers relentlessly ask: Who is the person we’re serving, and how can we make their service experience better?  That thinking encourages listening intently to what the customer says along with what isn’t said, but is felt.

Design-mindedness is uncommon in a traditional, operations-centric industry where running an efficient operation is prized above all other endeavors.  That mindset inhibits innovativeness, and too often, the customer is left out of the equation.

As a result, commercial air travel, with some notable exceptions, is perceived as a commodity, i.e. competitors’ services are virtually indistinguishable from each other, and customers tend to buy on price or schedule-convenience alone.

Historically, the major airlines have viewed their central challenge as getting passengers from point A to B as safely and efficiently as possible.  Their organizing principles arise from a linear manufacturing model which hasn’t changed much over time.

The University of Toronto’s Roger Martin observes, “The dominant attitude in traditional firms is to see constraints as the enemy and budgets as the driver of decisions… The traditionalist belief is, “We can only do what we have the budget to do.”

By contrast, design thinkers view their central challenge as solving “unsolvable” problems. Design-thinkers venerate the customer, and relentlessly seek novel novel ways of overcoming constraints.

VA’s corporate culture – clearly influenced by Richard Branson’s intense creativity and drive – is customer-driven, encouraging design-inspired choices.  Branson’s mission for the Virgin group is to make flying fun again.

Recognizing that they’d have to look outside the industry – to Silicon Valley – VA hired software engineers rather than airline vendors. The mix of engineers and process owners led to some interesting choices.

For one thing, they came up with the novel idea of using an open-source (Linux) platform, named Red, to power a range of nifty features, like touch-screen food and beverage ordering, on-demand media on a high-resultion monitor, and even in-seat chat. Internet connectivity will be available soon. Moreover, Red affords VA the flexibility to support future low, cost innovation.

There are bugs to be worked out. Customers have reported re-boots and other glitches. But, I think VA is well ahead of the innovation curve, and their service platform gives them a clear competitive edge.

How will the industry respond?  Carriers are taking a beating from record fuel prices and reduced demand, and in this cycle, the carriers will be treading water for some time. Under the circumstances, will the U.S. airlines open the door to design-minded, customer-centric thinking? What’s next is anybody’s guess.

Frugality, Innovation & the Kindle

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Business Week interviews Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in their current innovation issue. The conversation entitlted, “How Frugality Drives Innovation,” is a think piece – in brief – on how to start from customer needs and then develop the capabilities necessary to meet those needs. According to Bezos, that’s how the Kindle was developed.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Q: Every company claims to be customer-focused. Why do you think so few are able to pull it off?

A: Companies get skills-focused, instead of customer-needs focused. When [companies] think about extending their business into some new area, the first question is “why should we do that—we don’t have any skills in that area.” That approach puts a finite lifetime on a company, because the world changes, and what used to be cutting-edge skills have turned into something your customers may not need anymore. A much more stable strategy is to start with “what do my customers need?” Then do an inventory of the gaps in your skills.

Kindle is a great example. If we set our strategy by what our skills happen to be rather than by what our customers need, we never would have done it. We had to go out and hire people who know how to build hardware devices and create a whole new competency for the company.”

Intrigued?  Be sure to catch Charlie Rose’s interview (11/07) with Bezos about the Kindle, and Amazon’s “recipe” for innovation.

Cudos for “The Opposable Mind”

Monday, April 7th, 2008

I can’t remember the last time I read a business book where I was hungry for more.  That was the case with Roger Martin’s ’07 book, The Opposable Mind. This is one that I’ll propose for our upcoming Executive Book series — it’s a “must read” for all business consultants, executives or managers who want to get to the true heart of problem-solving.

Martin, who is the Dean at the University of Toronto’s innovative Rotman Business School, debunks conventional, linear thinking conducted by many business practitioners.  Instead, he advocates an unconventional, seemingly paradoxical approach to solving problems known as integrative thinking.  He maintains that successful leaders excel at integrative thinking.

According to Martin, integrative thinkers view problems “holistically”while embracing the tension between competing ideas. Integrative thinkers actually “hold two conflict ideas in constructive, almost dialectic tension.” He argues that many people find such tension uncomfortable, but not integrative thinkers.  In fact, their capacity to work in this space leads to creative solutions to complex problems.

Martin cites numerous examples of integrative thinkers and their successes including Meg Whitman of eBay, Victoria Hale of the Institute for One World Health, and Nanden Nilekani of Infosys.

Martin admits that shifting to integrative thinking isn’t easy.  But, he’s convinced that practioners can vastly improve their capacity for integrative thinking and, by doing so, can increase their effectiveness as problem-solvers.

His prescriptions include:

• Look at problems holistically, with consideration to how various parts fit together, rather than analyzing the parts in isolation.
• Consider multiple causes, as well as possible nonlinear relationships between cause and effect, rather than thinking of terms of simple linear relationships between a single cause and effect.
• Embrace the tension between opposing ideas and use that conflict to generate creative new alternatives rather than making simple either-or decisions.

Martin walks us through his argument with great clarity and elegance.  This was an informative and highly pleasurable read…

Creative problem-solving

Tuesday, February 26th, 2008

The sweet spot in business consulting is showing clients something they’ve never seen before.  That was the concensus of our consulting team’s work last week at our mid-quarter summit as we reflected on our problem-solving techniques.  It was our second foray reflecting on how we solve problems, and we agreed we’ll do it again later this year.

We concluded that we’re most successful in discovering fresh insights about an intractable problem, when we step way back to see the problem from a different perspective.  We strive to intentionally shift our point-of-view in order to see the problem in a new light. We turn the problem on its side, and upside down, and inside out, etc., and we don’t stop, until an epiphany occurs—a moment of clarity in which we discover a whole new way of seeing it.  In short, we assume a different relationship to the problem.

By shifting our cognitive framework, a creative solution almost invariably emerges.  In fact, it’s been there all along — as Aldous Huxley observed –it’s just been indiscernable.  Hidden in the weeds because our cognitive biases keep us from from seeing it.

When figuring out how to solve a customer’s problem, the tendency is to come up with a concrete, linear solution that eliminates or “works around” the root cause of the problem.   Ironically, some of the best solutions arise from a non-linear approach.  For instance, a major breakthrough in computer printing technology was made possible by creating a new language (called “Postscript”) for communicating from a computer to a printer. We came up with several illustrative examples of break-through solutions like this.

The key to creative problem-solving is to get outside of our conventional “framing,” and see it in a different context.  Change the composition of the problem, or the lighting. Walk away from it.

Seeing the problem differently requires first checking one’s judging mind at the door to the extent possible.  Don’t worry. You can always re-assert your cognitive framework and linear, analytical mindset when you get done or, better yet, revise it.

Last week’s conversation about applying creativity to problem solving was very insightful.  We left convinced that we can improve our capacity for creative problem-solving by tackling many different kinds of problems — gardening, oil painting, learning a language, teaching a child, eradicating malaria — in addition to solving the kinds of problems we get paid to solve…