Solving Yesterday’s Problems

Once upon a time there was an employee working on a knotty biotech problem. Weeks, then months, passed with no results. The employee’s manager decided that the employee clearly wasn’t working hard enough, fired him, and hired someone else.

Weeks, then months, passed with no results. The second person was also clearly not working hard enough and was swiftly replaced.

The next two people didn’t work hard enough either.

The fifth person got lucky: someone in a different lab was working on a similar problem and figured out that the process was fatally flawed. No one had noticed. Everyone, especially the manager, assumed that it must be correct. The manager, in particular, was unwilling to even consider the possibility that the problem could be the process, not the people, until it was shoved in his face.

In a slightly different example, I was conducting a leadership and negotiation exercise with a group of would-be managers. As part of the exercise, they were each given various items and told to obtain various other items. Naturally, everyone started trading back and forth. Some items, though, simply could not be found. As a result, the people who needed those missing items started hording the items they did have: they wanted to make sure they had leverage to get other people to give them the items they needed.

At the end, there were a number of very frustrated people complaining that the exercise was unfair because items were missing.

“I needed an apple, and there were no apples,” complained one irritated individual.

When I asked him why he hadn’t just gone down to the cafeteria and bought an apple, he just stared at me.

One woman complained that no one in the room had willow leaves. I asked why she didn’t just walk outside and pick some off the tree.

Again the stare.

Because each person was visibly presented with a bag of items, everyone immediately jumped to the assumption that all the items were present and that they could be obtained through trade. Even when that failed to work for everyone, no one questioned the basic assumption. Instead, those who couldn’t find what they needed assumed that people were withholding items and responded by withholding their items. Instead of engaging in brainstorming or problem solving, they just glared at each other. Unlike the biotech manager, the option of firing one person and hiring another was not available. This was probably fortunate under the circumstances.

In both the lab and the exercise, the people involved had become so focused on the results that they weren’t thinking about how they were trying to accomplish those results. Indeed, the process had somehow achieved the status of holy writ, to the point that no one even thought of questioning it.

Results are important, make no mistake about that. However, it’s equally important to think strategically about how to accomplish those results. By mindlessly assuming that only one path exists or one way of working exists, the different groups trapped themselves in failure.

The more difficult the problem being solved, the more important it becomes to pay attention to the process. Assuming that there is only one process or blindly believing that everyone has to fit a certain image or work a certain way reduces the likelihood of success and can even lead to the results not being accepted. The lab manager could have made something of a name for himself if he’d been the one to publish the identification of the flawed process! The groups looking for the items could have all succeeded if they’d stopped to revisit their assumptions and seek out alternate means of accomplishing their goals.

If you’re trying to solve yesterday’s problems, then ignoring the process is frequently a great way to go about it. By the same token, it would be very easy to win the lottery if you could only buy based on yesterday’s paper. Unfortunately, the first option is actually available in business.

The more complex the problem, therefore, the more important it becomes to stop and look at what you’re trying to accomplish, how you’re trying to do it, and why you’ve chosen to do it that way. If you want to think strategically, it helps considerably if you don’t limit yourself to preconceived notions about how the problems must be solved. The more hidden assumptions you can overturn, the more likely you are to accomplish your goals.

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