The number of our interventions, projects and programmes that go pear-shaped in one way or another is substantial. Rarely if ever, do we see projects come in on time, on budget or achieve everything promised. This is rarely acknowledged as we have a quite brilliant ability to rationalise our failures and present them as “successes”.
The reasons for this are manifold, but there is one factor that is common to many. That is, the thinking to design and implement said project usually happens too far “down-stream” from where it needs to be. If the thinking can be moved back upstream (“to the source of the river” if you like), the outcomes almost invariably improve.
If we use the analogy of a river for our thinking … the source of the river is a glacier in the mountains and commences with glacial melt. The melt then it moves down through the valleys, then out of the mountains across the plains and into the sea.
If we apply this analogy to our thinking, much of our design and intervention is done on the plains where the water has already run much of it’s course. A healthy percentage of this “plains” thinking needed to have started much earlier back at the source, because it is at the source where it can have far greater impact.
More thinking at the “river’s source” means that unforeseen issues that occur downstream on the plain are greatly diminished. It may also mean the issue doesn’t occur at all. Most importantly, moving our thinking back to the source of the river allows better conception, design and implementation.
There are numerous means via which we can move our thinking upstream. Many fall under different banners such as analytical, strategic and critical but I have found the most effective thinking tools in this space fall under the broad title of Problem Definition tools. If the problems we are presented with can be defined and redefined from multiple perspectives new and alternate means of addressing the problem can be found.
Problem Definition tools are the most crucial when seeking to solve and issue or capitalise on an opportunity and yet, we rarely use them. We assume we know what the problem is and how to progress. These assumptions are where we come unstuck!
For a over a million years we have been wired to solve problems. We are in fact, very good problem solvers. The ability to solve a problem quickly is the greatest of survival mechanisms. We also have brains that are powerful learning mechanisms we learn how to quickly solve issues we tend to stick to what we know and in doing so bring the same, or similar solutions to similar problems that we face.
This ability to quickly produce a response saves us having to stop and think in every instance and that prompt response was a great way to avoid the jaws of a sabre-toothed tiger. Not so however for today’s more nuanced and complex problems and opportunities. A rapid solution-orientation is great skill-set to have with more simple and predictable issues, but it’s not so helpful in a complex world that is shifting and changing rapidly.
The reason we struggle to gain traction with so many issues is that our brain’s tell us that “we know what to do”, when all too often we do not! We are hard-wired to “know” based upon our great learning abilities and any effort to stop and explore, rather than move to that first pattern-matched solution, is a challenge in itself.
So we have an automatic solution-orientation that is very hard to discard. This makes moving our thinking back upstream somewhat difficult. We are to some extent victims of our own great intelligence.
Einstein countered this tendency well when he said “If I had an hour to save the world I’d spend the first 55 minutes working out the problem and then the remaining 5 minutes coming up with solutions”.
Coupled with our natural solution-orientation it becomes doubly difficult to move our thinking back upstream when we have to battle our own egos that never like to admit to ourselves, let alone to others, that we are uncertain and that we do not know the best possible way to proceed. Couple this with the current epidemic of busy-ness where reflection and thinking time take a back seat, it can be a real task to get our thinking right.
How then can we get around this very natural tendency to think we have all of the answers? There are some simple steps that can be put into place:
- We need to disregard the mindset that tells us we know all of the answers – We do not!
- Make the time for defining and redefining your problems & opportunities from multiple perspectives. (Assumptions are safe here as long as we acknowledge they are assumptions).
- Include as many stakeholders into the session as is practical to benefit from their diversity of knowledge and experience. (In the knowledge and thinking space the concept of “many hands make light work” is dramatically more powerful than in a physical labour sense).
- Select and apply some thinking frameworks or tools that will enable problems to be redefined and new perspectives to emerge. (More on these in the next post …)
- Take those perspectives and only then select the most promising and design small experimental solutions to “test the water.”
- Implement those solutions and see what transpires – Nothing can happening until the rubber meets the road. (Too often cost and resource intensive solutions take too long and failure means big trouble).
Too often we seek to place square pegs in round holes because in the past the round holes have been big enough to accommodate. No more, unique problem solving solutions are required in most instances meaning we need to think how we define our problems very differently.
For those interested in learning how to improve their problem definition, join us at our Six Thinking Hats workshop on Dec 14 in Melbourne.