Defining the Problem
Now we're going to do something that feels like stepping backwards so it's odd right? We're going end this by thinking about how you define problems you're trying to solve you would think that since defining the problem starts at the front end of the problem solving process that that should've been the first thing we were talking about but the funny thing is until you really understand the way you solve problems the way you use your knowledge to solve problems you actually can't do a good job of defining problems because you're trying to define problems in a way that is going to maximize the information that comes out of memory that's going to help you to solve those problems so until you understand your memory I understand your habits understand causal knowledge understand analogy until you understand all of that you can't actually think about what is the very first thing you should be doing when you solve problems and so what we're going to do in this last section is to ask the quest...
ion when you are trying to solve a problem, what in the world are you actually trying to accomplish? How can you get some consensus if you have a group that's trying to solve a problem and then I'm going to give you a couple of tools that you can use whenever you're trying to solve a problem to see whether that will give you some insight into how to solve that problem in a different way and then after we go through all of those tools, then we're going to make a grand summary. We're going to try and tie all these pieces together by stepping back through all the stuff that we've done not not no one minute by one minute basis, but stepping back through all the stuff we've done over the last three days pick out some of those big themes and think a little bit about how to make sure that we're going to start actually using this information because as much as I've enjoyed having all of you here for the last three days with me, this class will not have been successful for me if you don't go home and actually start using this on a daily basis from here on out. So we need to make sure that we leave here not just with some strategies for doing something but an actual implementation intention for how to begin to use some of this stuff in our lives so that's where we're going to end with this? Okay? So, um when you are in any kind of a situation in which you need to think effectively, you need to be able to define, uh, problems in a way that is going to maximize your ability to get the knowledge out that you need when you need to get it out okay, now the problem definition is really crucial to your success in that, both because it determines what knowledge you're going to be reminded of, as well as because it determines how you're going to figure out whether you succeeded or not, right? If you define the problem in the wrong way, then not only won't you get the right kind of knowledge out, you won't even know if you're done. And in fact, one of the things to remember upfront is that a good problem definition not only gives you some suggestions for how it is that you're going toe, uh, what knowledge you're gonna bring to bear to solve that problem, but a good problem definition is actually going to contain within it some measure of success that is, you have to know what it's going to mean to have succeeded at your problem. Now, sometimes, you know you're playing games, so, you know, you will have succeeded, like, if I give him a puzzle to do right a jigsaw puzzle. I know I've finished because I have the picture that was on the front of the box, right? All and I've used all the pieces, but generally speaking, in the world, the problems that were solving are a little bit more ill defined than that, and so actually it's not so clear. What it will mean to have succeeded so we have to really think a little bit about what it is that success willing will involve in the problems that we're trying to solve. So um when were defining a problem there's several things that we need to worry about we need to worry about exactly how to characterize the central problem itself we're gonna give you a lot of tools for doing that over the rest of this time period but along the way there are two other things that you need to think about and these relate to the kinds of things that we thought about back when we were talking about the abstract goals that you want to achieve in your life you know I see it all connects together it all connects together the problems that you solved are like these abstract goals when you are trying to make a decision of is this some abstract thing that I should be doing then part of what we asked ourselves was not just what is that goal but also is this important enough for me to commit to it should I be doing this and the same thing is true whatever you're trying to solve a problem if you really decide that you're going to engage in a serious problem solving process you are committing to do some really hard work it is well worth asking the question is this something I should really be doing because I will tell you in business context people do not ask that question often enough and I have seen businesses go off and spend months and millions of person hours you know, money time on problems that probably should never have been solved in the first place and then they get to the end of the process and they realize that what they've done is probably not even something they should bother implementing because they should probably never have engaged in any of this work to be in with but but people get so far down the process that they forget to ask themselves is this something I should really be doing so we want to ask ourselves that question we also want to think about how is it that we can achieve some amount of consensus about the nature of the problem that we're trying to solve so here's a fascinating thing um when I myself am working alone to solve a problem then I have to find a way of defining that problem but when there's a group working on a problem it gets even more difficulty because actually the group needs to agree on what it is that the problem? What problem it is that's b unsolved and it turns out that a lot of times and I do a lot of work with groups that are solving problems you walk into a room and people on ly agree at the most abstract level right everyone comes in and they say oh yes yes we want a revolutionary solution to what we're facing right now whatever that business is right we want to revolutionize the industry and everyone will say that you go around the room I go yep revolutionize the industry revolution yep yep and then you say, well, what does that mean right? Because how do you revolutionize industry? So what does that mean? And now you go back through and you ask people what that means now you get twelve different answers from six people right? That people don't even agree and within themselves. And so what that means is that at the point where you're actually going to get a problem statement specific enough that that it can be solved there is often a high degree of disagreement about exactly what it is that needs to be done and there are times where we create the statements and we believe that we understand them until we re going really dig into them and I'll give you an example of what I mean so several years ago I had the opportunity to be to be a speaker at a company's annual meeting and right before I got to speak this was the beginning of the economic downturn which is not by the way a great time to be a speaker and a corporate meeting and so there was this room full of very scared executives and the vice president for the coming of vice president of the company got up and spoke right before I did and started started her talk with that that that phrase that we all heard so often during the downturn uh, in this era of economic scarcity, we need to do more with less right? And then and then they said this year, our corporate problem solving is focused on one aim we need to streamline our business and honestly, everyone in the room was like, yes, we need to streamline we're going to streamline our business, we're going and and and so this this woman finished her talk and then I got up and and and spoke to the group and then I walked out with a group of people and they were still buzzing about streamlining, right? And they were time of this time, and then one of them went wait a second what what what what does that mean to streamline the business? And they started, like shay scratching their heads and what I'm said, well, yeah, stream where does that even come from? The word streamline so they realize ok, streamlining is is a kind of an engineering term it means to reduce the forces of drag on something bye bye somehow removing things that would get in the way of barefoot flow over over this thing which basically means that streamlining our business practices means in the coming year we're going to get more efficient by somehow getting more efficient right? The term actually didn't mean anything at all and and it was it was actually you could see the you could see people getting deflated right as they realise they had just committed to nothing right? They had just gotten all excited about something that actually didn't there was no problem there was no there was no agreement about underneath that about what actually that men and they actually then spend that what was what to their credit they actually spent a fair amount of time after that really talking about well what are the what are the sources of inefficiency in businesses? And they had this really interesting discussion about analogy which is in what ways are big companies like organisms? And they started thinking about great concepts like convergent evolution and ways that overtime different business units end up evolving some structures and because they both needed to solve the same kind of problem where they would invent parallel structures for doing things and then even sometimes use different software packages for doing it and that there might be efficiencies to be gained by centralizing some of those things and by creating more unit for maty in packages because business is unlike evolving organisms you can actually extract stuff and replace new stuff inside of it and I thought that was a really interesting discussion, but notice in order to get to that they had to actually realize that there was no particular agreement on what the problem was that they were solving I thought that was a really fascinating way of turning the problem on its head and really beginning to think about how can we define what it is that we're trying to do now, um, most of many of the problems that we see are defined to abstract li er I did have another group once that really wanted that they're really said they wanted to improve the performance of of toothbrushes, and again it was like, I don't what does that mean? You know, I mean, what is it howto toothbrushes perform right? And and is that really the kind of problem that you want to solve so groups really again they'll they'll create very brief descriptions of problems and say, I agree on what, what what is we're trying to do? But when you really dig into it, it turns out that people aren't really on the same page um and this is true actually in many different situations, right there's a reason why when you when you see like political banner political banners, they have very general statements on them because it's easy to get people to agree with a very general statement but it's very hard to get people to hold to get a whole bunch of people to agree on the specifics, right? And so fundamentally this is something that businesses need to worry about and it's actually in some ways something that each of us needs to worry about even in our personal lives, it's something we need to worry about even if we work by ourselves is to really think about at a specific level, what are we trying to accomplish on what kind of? And because until we understand what are we trying to accomplish? We can't really figure out what kinds of knowledge that we have our is they are the knowledge that we need to use in order to solve problems effectively. Now, one of the things that we talked about yesterday, we were talking about fixing brainstorming, so if you remember, we had a brief discussion about this, this topic of brain storming, and we talked about the fact that the traditional rules of brainstorming don't work this idea that we get a bunch of people in a room together, we tell him, throw out as many ideas as you can, and and then we start letting people talk and they're fundamentally one of the big problems with brainstorming is that whenever you have a group working together, the group's what groups are really good at is converging on something, whereas, um individuals when they work alone are really good at diverging so what this suggests is when we're in the process of trying to define the problem that early on in that process we might want to allow a number of people to generate their own individual ideas about what problems what problem we're trying to solve but that if we're trying to achieve consensus in a group about the problem to be solved it's really important tohave an explicit discussion about that because discussion creates consensus okay by the time you reach the end of the discussion a group will generally have muchmore agreement about what it is that they're trying to do then they had at the beginning okay, so that's one of the really important uh parts of this process now one of the tools that you can use when you're doing this so if you're working with a group this could be a company but it can also be a nonprofit it could be you know it could be it could be any kind of an organization so if you look at page forty five and your materials if you've got this you don't have it you know where to get it at this point so I'm not gonna repeat that um but there is another there's a really nice tool it's a kind of a three by three grid here and it's called an ambition analysis and the way that this grid works is that along the top it's got time frames right the near term the midterm in the long term and then along the way ah along the left side here it's got uh three different possibilities for what it is you might want to accomplish one possibilities you're trying to catch up with your competition another possibility is you're trying to do something that's a little bit incremental the third possibility is that you're really trying to disrupt uh, an entire industry and whenever you start the problem solving process it's really important to figure out where you're trying to do this where what is the scope of your ambition? And it turns out that that any one of these cells here can be possible so when you're trying to do something interesting are you really trying to accomplish something today and this is true for habits to write if you want to just think about this in terms of habits I might try to do something in the near term, right? Is this something where I want to change something over the next few months? Do I have a year the medium term dive each six months, eight months a year or is this something where I'm looking five years down the road right when I learned to play the saxophone to put this in a habit context right? I was willing to think ten years from now this was a long term plan okay, I don't always have the time for a long term plan there are times where I want to make a change whether it's a habit change or a problem that I'm trying to solve in a business context I may need to do something in the next six months all right? Or I may need to do something in a medium term time period one year, eighteen months it's really important to understand the time frame that you have available because that actually influences the range of solutions that you are allowed to consider now here's an interesting thing in the osborn standard rules of brainstorming one of the things that he talks about is throw out all the constraints on the problem don't worry about the constraints actually, one of the things we know about creativity is that creativity works better the mork constrained the problem is and I'll give you an example of what I mean by this constraints actually make ume or creative so friend of mine named tom ward he's a psychologist now the university of alabama he's done some really beautiful studies so one of his studies that he did involved asking a bunch of college students to build objects out of, you know things like, you know, lego like pieces just different kind of building pieces and say he would so some people were told here's a bunch of pieces go make something really creative that's, like the least control constrained version of this now other people were given a subset of the pieces, just some of the pieces and said, here, go build something really interesting with this. Ah third group of people was given all of the pieces that were available and told here, I want you to make a particular invention here, make a can opener out of this, you know? And then a fourth group was given a subset of the pieces, and we're told what they had to make from it. So here's a small number of pieces go make, um a can opener. So what happened? Ok, the group that was the least constrained was also the least creative, in part because they would look at the set of pieces. They hadn't. They'd say that sort of looks like an orange juicer. I could probably make an orange juicer out of this, and then they would build something that sort of looked like an orange juicer, right? Because their memory started playing, influencing their ability to solve the problem. Now, the more constraints you put on it, um, the more creative people god. So if I took away some of the pieces now people might have to be a little bit more creative, they'd say, well, some of these pieces sort of looked like a kn orange juicer, but some of them don't, but if I use this piece in an interesting way now, I get a juicer out of it, and so now you did something a little bit creative, but you were still reminded of something. Um, if I gave you a problem to solve is that you make me a can opener out of these pieces, you would look the pieces you'd go well, here's, a bunch of stuff, the sort of looks like a can opener, here's the pieces that were here that looked most like a can opener, I'm going to use those, right? But I have to adapt some of the pieces, and so again, you're a little bit creative, but if I say to you, hey here's, a specific set of pieces make me a can opener. What happened was either people failed utterly because they couldn't come up with anything, but in the event they did come up with something, it was usually a really creative solution, right? So the more constraints you put on the solution, actually, the more creative people ended up having to be, you know, this old phrase necessity is the mother of invention bye place a lot of constraints on your world you have to work harder to come up with something that's really novel in order to be able to solve the problem. So this kind of ambition analysis is actually important because one of the things it does is it places constraints on the problem that you're solving it suggests to you look you're not free to do anything we need to come up with a way of catching up with our competition in the next twelve months I don't have three years to do this I have twelve months what can I do let's really come up with something and so having these kinds of constraints and understanding what it is that's allowable is a really important part of starting the process partly because it gives a sense of what success would mean and partly because it places some constraints on the problem that might actually turn out to be crucial for helping you to become a little bit more creative in the process of solving that problem. So I really like this particular kind of tool now another thing you want to do is to figure out okay if I've trying to define this problem have I set up the problem I'm trying to solve in the right way and one of them one of the issues with that is we often take problems that we get sort of as they're given to us we use the languages they're given right? So it turns out that dyson, for example, we talked about dyson in the last section. James dyson was not the first person ever to try to improve the bag on a vacuum cleaner. In fact, if you look at vacuum cleaner designs, you will see that they that the types of bags they used in the materials and their capacity, all of these things changed from time to time to time to time, right? And we went from vacuum cleaners in which you took a clamp off of a bag and dump the contents of the bag out two vacuum cleaners that little plastic filters in them where you just took the entire canister out and threw that away and put in a new one, right? So these are people have been trying to improve vacuum cleaners for an awfully long time. It took it took a while, though, for people for for someone like dyson to come along and say, you know what the bag itself might not actually be necessary, and in fact, you know, other people have tried to improve vacuum cleaners in other ways, right? I mean, the roomba company said, well, the vacuum er may not be necessary, right? Maybe I can actually have something that guides itself right? So are their aspect of the situation that could be changed in ways that would remove or alter elements that didn't stink. That that may not have obviously been removable are all terrible, right? Maybe somebody could create, ah, carpet, that just resists dust, so I don't need to clean it in the first place, right? How cool would that be? You know, uh, a carpet that vacuums itself, all right, so, so if you're out there, I need I need very little credit for that. If, uh, if you come up with that.