06 Jul

I have a theory, admittedly based on little hard evidence other than intuition, that in today's digitally enabled instant gratification world, we are slowly falling out of love with solving problems.

 It is why we take it for granted that obsolescence is built into the design of so many things that make our lives ‘easier’ that we are shocked every time we hear about the impact on climate caused by the disposal society we hanker after. 

A side ‘bee in my bonnet’ is fly tipping. Not because it is hideously anti-social behaviour but because it represents our inability to understand fully why people do it. IMHO.

My evidence?

I recently ran a ‘speed’ problem solving workshop for a sales company. 

The speed came from the duration of the workshop.60 minutes, take it or leave it. Bish, bash, bosh in effect. With the bonus that it was actually face to face.

The invite to the team, sent by the CEO, was brief. It read ‘why are we falling out of love with our problems’.

With this title I had agreed with the CEO that the flow of the workshop would be a little shock and awe in nature. 

She assured me they were comfortable with being uncomfortable so off we went.

The CEO stood and framed the first half of the workshop.

She said, “we are facing a revenue downturn based on projected pipeline numbers, so I want each of you to come up with ways to drive up the figures, create more energy with customers and protect us from making difficult decisions further down the line”.

Little to be confused about with her statement. Laying it out like this was ‘usual speak’ from the CEO and common across the industry they were in. A nice balance of carrot and stick that wouldn’t look out of place in many similar situations. Everyone knew the score.

A game of two halves.

For the first 30 minutes they had to ‘go for it’ and find answers to the CEO’s problem statement. 

And off they went.

I watched in silence as they pulled up ‘tried and tested ideas’ to help solve the problem - ‘more qualified leads from marketing’, ‘run a customer event’, ‘do a social media campaign’ etc etc. 

The wall was full of Post IT notes and the room rattled with chatter. 

As the observer I saw the predictable behaviour that often blights such events -  some grabbed the pens and went for it; others threw in counter ideas like grenades, others shook heads wisely with healthy cynicism and others just watched either not interested or just shy to be involved. 

I asked them to vote on their best idea and then called time after 25 minutes to gather thoughts. 

I asked for a spokesperson from each group to stand up and speak to their best idea  - short sharp and without too much explanation - and asked the others to listen actively (be in the shoes of the person talking). We didn’t seek feedback nor judgement - that would come later.30 minutes left.

Second half.

With 30 minutes to go I  asked them to take a moment and watch the CEO write the following sentence on the board and instructed them to copy down exactly what they saw.

"How might we make it easier for people to do business with our company?"

The CEO did this in complete silence offering no clarification nor direction.

I then asked them to consider one person they dealt with on a regular basis and consider this sentence from that person’s perspective. To be in that person’s shoes. So for sellers it might be their number one customer or a new prospect they are trying to impress, for the consultants it might be their technology partner supporting their designs and for marketeers it might be venue management companies or copywriting agencies. 

The CEO was asked the same question by the way.

And off they went again with the same challenge of coming up with ideas on the board to solve the problem statement written down on their pads.

Some struggled initially because the word 'easier' had many connotations that they found a challenge. Sellers would argue 'do you mean lower prices', consultants would complain that 'the technology is often difficult so making it easier might be counterproductive for their own job security' ( an interesting one, right?) and the marketing folk spoke of 'they had already made resources easy it was just that sales never used it’. If you have ever worked in sales you might imagine the range of comments.,

Eventually they got going as they were encouraged to think of the ‘other person’ and not themselves. Often a very hard conscious thing to do for any of us. And ideas started to form and appear on the post IT Notes - ‘remove cookies from all our websites’, ‘get the CEO on TEDx’, ‘introduce a chat bot on the service desk’, ‘commit to paying invaluable freelance consultants within 30 days’ ( I smiled at that one) and ‘build a simple explainer TikTok of the tech sold’. 

After 20 minutes I asked each person to shout out their idea. Or if they hadn’t got one of their own to ‘vote’ on someone else’s. Everyone had to have a voice. 

5 minutes left. Yes, it was strictly on the clock for a reason. I was keen for them not to rush into the knee jerk solutioning rush so common with such sessions. There was time for that later.

To close the session I asked the CEO to share her own ideas to both her original problem statement and the reframed ‘easier’ version. And here was the interesting thing.

In those 60 minutes she admitted she had turned herself from solving a common problem that they had all ‘heard before’ to a new way of looking at a different problem. Originally she was looking at the run rate ideas shared by her team with perhaps some ‘umpf’ on commission payments and incentive schemes. Once she had been through the ‘easier’ discussion and had listened to her people she felt there were other avenues where by making things ‘easier’ fresh opportunities would emerge.

And when she thought about someone else dealing with her company - she was thinking of the Managing Director in her favourite customer - she conceded ‘her company was not the easiest to deal with’. At that point I left them with a closing remark - “what if our company was easier to do business with, how might we be more successful than ever before”. 

FYI This last remark became the anchor for the next session the team is planning.

What had happened? 

My goal for that day was to hijack thinking and exploit the way we can often ‘tune out’ when we ‘hear’ a problem fired at us. 

After 40,000 years, give or so a few I'm sure, the human being is exceptionally built to communicate verbally. If you shouted at me there was a tiger in the bushes I would react immediately as I would if you told me that the ship was sinking. Fight or flight. 

And even if the drama was not as it transpired the human being is pretty good at getting the message. But fast forward and the source of communication is a picture of intensity and diversity where we may never actually ‘fully hear’ for a whole host of reasons and rely on our ‘heard it before’ filter to respond.

Recall your days as a teenager and the mechanical response you angrily fired back to a parent on being told ‘if you don’t tidy your room then you will have an even bigger problem’. Or opposition politicians berating government leaders for not reacting ‘fast enough to an emerging social crisis.' Or a CEO urging her team to ‘we are facing a revenue downturn based on projected pipeline numbers’. 

All day long we ‘hear’ problems. Some are easy and we bat away with consummate ease, others are tricky, but we can figure them out and occasionally we encounter a complex one that exposes our ‘lack of active listening’. Who really is listening to the biggest problem statement we all face -‘how do we make the earth sustainable for the human race to live’. 

The power of the written word.

By asking the teams to write down the CEO’s reframed problem statement I had two objectives. 

Firstly, it as a deliberate attempt to get everyone to participate ( often glossed over ) and undergo the physical effort of putting pen to paper (an increasing rarity in the tap tap click world). Second, the words were chosen to prise apart the closed mindsets we all call into action when busy’ and when people are talking to us about problems. 

Imagine the teenager hearing for the umpteenth time ‘to tidy their bedroom or else’. Or a stressed-out sales person being told ‘your problem is that you don’t close enough business so what you need to do is blah blah’. Or those opposition party politicians remonstrating with government officials that they ‘must respond quicker to situations or risk public outcry’. Yada Yada Yada. 

We hear problems all day long and our brains will be quite effective at tuning them out and offering plausibly sounding ‘OK I will get onto it’ knowing full well our attention is not firing on all cylinders.

A beautiful question.

In my one and only book, Even If It Was Free, I talk about the ‘beautiful question’ - thanks Warren Berger!!  - and how if we just took a moment to look at our problems and reframed them as questions we can fall back in love with the process and the results. [1] 

And in my mind one step into turning a ‘heard it before’ problem into a beautiful one is to use the words ‘How Might We’ sprinkled with an enticing use of the word ‘easier’. When we hear the words ‘how’ our brains stretch open to explore ‘there may be more than one way to solve this’. Whereas the first problem statement by the CEO contained no ‘excitement or intrigue’. These were words they had ‘heard it all before’. 

Of course, if the CEO had said, ‘if we don’t close business faster, heads will roll’ then I suspect there might have been more attention but also a huge dose of low trust and morale.

I believe introduction of the word ‘easier’ really does hijack our thinking and disrupts our assumptions and biases that 'we are already thinking like this'. Consider 'how might we make it easier for people to recycle unwanted electronic goods' or 'how we might make it easier for people to park their car in public spaces.'

Think about this.  Neither you nor me would consciously give out a problem statement that ran ‘how can we make it harder for people to live on this planet’ or ‘how can we make it harder for people to dispose of unwanted goods’, but in a way, that is what we actually do create. Depending on our perspective we may argue that many actually do pursue such problem statements. There is some counter-intuitive stuff going on there, right?

Just make it easier, please.

When we hear the word ‘easier’ we can easily think about ourselves without consciously being aware. So some may say to the CEO's written down question, ‘pay me more money making it easier for me live and I will jump through hoops to help you close more pipeline’. Or ‘make it easier for me to buy your products more often by removing security checks’. Sound worryingly familiar? 

But what about other people? Are we thinking how ‘easier’ it is for them? I suspect if you ask a cyber-criminal they will have some interesting research data on how ‘easy’ it is for them to exploit our search for ‘easiness’. As with the sales group example, the ‘beautiful question’ - "How might we make it easier for people to do business with our company?"- challenged the group to widen their minds, consider someone other than themselves and think about the barriers that person might experience when dealing with their company.

Suggesting a beautiful question does not represent a magic bullet. Far from it but it does offer us a chance to use our 40,000-year-old brain to slow down and consider what we are thinking as our best idea - and to think about the person.

The forked tongue of the written word.

A word of caution. Just by committing our problems to the written word doesn’t make it all seem super clear and unambiguous. One of the reasons we verbalise our problems is that we use non verbal’s and body language to get our point across. And depending on a host of factors - culture, individual ego, situation - how we respond to the words we hear can influence so much, even if we don't necessarily understand nor agree.

Even the simplest problem statements when written down can morph into a series of conflicting statements offering multiple resolution paths and sub-problems that will easily redirect people down rabbit holes and conflict positions. We can often lose sight of our goal and the problem we are facing and divert attention to the 'wordsmithing' and 'intelligence' of the words were putting down. And with technology now embedded in so many business processes these channels of governance can strip away our real intent and unwittingly project a completely different problem to the reader.

The way we rock and roll says a lot.

.In business we have a style of communication. 

We have guidelines, protocols and etiquette that determines how we share information. We expect colleagues to comply with these things , falling into the rhythm of 'how we are doing things round here' -  often called the Common Knowledge Effect. [2]

And the same goes with how we share goals and problems. They may come down from the top or come up from the bottom but either way the style we adopt will follow a loose or hard path that we can all understand. My theory is that we are finding it harder to describe our problems or perhaps more accurately, we are using thinking that is no longer relevant to solve what we see as the same problem occurring again. And that this can be influenced up or down by how we tell problems to each other. 

To close I am reminded of a story where It is written that student of Albert Einstein’s  complained, “These are the same questions you asked on last year’s test. Nothing has changed. Einstein answered, True enough, all the questions are the same; but this year, the answers are different. Think about this. The answers are different. [3]

Go on give it a try.

The next time you are working on a problem statement take a moment to reframe the words.


* Start with who has the problem and be clear on who that might be. A clue is that it might not be you or people 'like you'.

* Then reframe the problem statement into a question starting with ‘how might we’ - and then add in the word ‘easier’ to anchor on the people with the problem. Be careful there will be many.

 * And try it out.

 * Oh and be prepared to fail and fail again. 

* We can often give up too quickly - try and stick at it.

This is the first part of a two-part blog post I'm sticking out there. Part 2 will talk about ‘what if our answers to our problems were just good enough’ and how we can often guild the lily by trying to be all things to everyone.

If you like this blog post and want to talk please book a call  https://calendly.com/paulrussell/30min


[1] The beautiful question - https://amorebeautifulquestion.com/

[2] The Common Knowledge Effect - https://collectiveintelligenceblog.com/wiser-groupthink-y-the-common-knowledge-effect/

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/9628422-the-answers-have-changed-albert-einstein-was-once-giving-an

Thank you.

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