Friday, 23 September 2016

Problem Solving....

I shadowed one of my colleagues running a ‘Creative Problem Solving’ workshop last week.  I thought the content and delivery was great, with lots of tools, techniques and real world examples to bring the concepts to life.  Feedback from the delegates was also very good - all positive stuff.

I genuinely believe that the delegates took a lot away and are better prepared to find solutions to problems that will address the root causes rather than act as sticking plasters or cause other problems elsewhere. Rather than repeat solutions and tools in this blog I thought the following might highlight the pressing need for careful, considered and creative problem solving. Sticking plaster solutions can be dangerous when we don’t look deeply enough into what causes problems.  It was H L Mencken who said:  “For every complex problem there is a solution that is neat, plausible and wrong”.  The instances of this are scarily frequent.  Often called the cobra effect or law of unintended consequences, examples include:

In British Colonial India, Cobras were a dangerous problem so the government offered a reward for every dead cobra. This was successful until enterprising Indians began to breed cobras for the reward which, when the government realised what was happening caused them to cancel the reward programme. Which in turn caused the Indians to release all their now worthless cobras from captivity, which increased the scale of the problem dramatically.  Similarly in Hanoi, a cobra solution was addressed by rewarding locals who captured their main food source, rats.  Locals presented a rat tail to receive their bounty.  However, officials observed lots of tailless rats running around - the locals didn’t want the rats to disappear along with their chance of claiming a bounty so the rat population increased and so did the food source for cobras….

By way of a more homely example, look at the problem of family arguments in the morning as the kids are getting ready for school.  This is courtesy of an HBR article by Peter Bregman (

In Peter’s own words:

We talked to them about how important it is to have a good relationship with their siblings, we made clear what we expected, and we developed rules for living together. We trained them in respectful communication and taught them how to breathe and manage their anger. We meditated with them and mediated between them. We rewarded them, punished them, reasoned with them, and begged them.  And still they fought and argued every morning.  It was only when I stopped to ask: ‘What do I do when I have a sticky problem that I have attempted to solve in every way possible and none of my solutions have worked?’ that I found a way forward."

The discovery for Peter was not about finding a better solution. It was about finding a better problem to solve.  He wondered, if the kids didn’t have a sibling fighting problem, what else might it be? He pondered a number of different possibilities and landed on what turned out to be a different problem with a very different solution.
In his own words: “My kids didn’t have a sibling problem, they had a morning problem. They woke up tired and with low blood sugar.  Which means the solution wasn’t to teach them how to speak nicely to each other. In fact, that just exacerbated the problem because after we lectured them, they felt worse and now they weren’t just mad at each other, they were mad at their parents too. The solution was to ensure a slightly earlier bedtime and deliver them a glass of orange juice when we woke them up for school.  This solved the problem 90% of the time!”

So I hope that our course delegates are able to come up with better problem resolution and, maybe more importantly, better define problems in the first instance before jumping to solutions that are simple, neat and wrong!

Thanks for reading.

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