The power of a little naiveté

questioningMost of us are experts in something. Our expertise and experience are usually significant advantages that allow us to deal effectively with complex problems and situations. But they can occasionally be Achilles’ heels when they breed the type of overconfidence that causes us to overlook simple solutions in favor of more complex and costly solutions. Injecting a little naiveté into some problem solving sessions can spur new thinking that results in more effective and efficient solutions.

In my experience, experts tend to skip right by the simple solutions to most problems. Groups of experts working to solve a problem are even more likely to head directly to the more complex solutions.

Consider this example from the excellent book I’m currently reading, CustomerCulture by Michael D. Basch (thanks to Anna Barcelos for the tip):

Hershey’s Chocolate Company had a problem on its Rollo production line. It had worked with teams of employees to improve quality and had raised the consciousness of their employees around service in all aspects of the operation. This example involves a problem where the candy went through an automatic wrapping machine, and the wrapped candy was dropped onto a conveyor that dumped it into boxes to be sold in retail stores. When the box reached the specified weight, it would be shifted to a new empty box, and the process would continue.

The problem was that, all too often, empty wrappers would come out of the wrapping machine and end up in the retail boxes. These boxes had cellophane windows where the consumer could see the empty wrappers, and, although the box was sold by weight, the customers’ perception was of poor quality and the feeling of being taken advantage of.

The company put a team of engineers on the problem, and a new wrapping machine was not cost justified. Therefore, the problem became “How to get the empty wrappers off the conveyor.” The engineers then designed an elaborate vibratory conveyor system. A vibratory conveyor vibrates, and heavy things tend to move with the force of gravity. In this way, they could vibrate the filled wrappers off the vibratory conveyor to the box filling conveyor. The cost would be about $10,000 to move equipment around and to install the new system. Of greater consequence was the time. This line was working 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and was still falling behind. A retrofit would stall production for a day and one-half.

Fortunately, part of the team inventing the new system was the production workers who worked the line every day. The engineers presented their solution for feedback. The next day, two production workers were discussing the problem just before lunch when one said, “I’ve got it.” The other asked, “What have you got?” “I’ll show you after lunch,” came a hasty reply as the man left the building. After lunch, he returned with a $15 fan he had purchased at Wal-Mart. He plugged in the fan. It blew the empty wrappers off the conveyor, and the problem was solved—no great cost, no stalled production.

In the end, the simple solution was both highly effective and highly efficient. I don’t know why expertise largely blinds us to these types of solutions, but maybe it’s because our training and our past experiences have been so focused on complex solutions that we just automatically go there. And when we’re discussing the problems with groups of experts, as was the case in the Hershey’s example, maybe we also just assume the others in the group have already considered more simple solutions.

Hence, the power of a little naiveté.

Too often, we associate naiveté with ineptitude, but the root of the word, naive, is really more about lack of understanding or sophistication. And that lack of sophistication can be just what the doctor ordered in some problem solving situations. I can think of many conversations I’ve had over the years with hard core technical folks where I asked a series of “dumb” questions that ultimately led to those highly trained experts developing simpler and ultimately more effective solutions.

Next time you have a complicated problem you’re trying to solve, rather than just gathering the best of the best (and only the best of the best) to discuss solutions, consider inviting a few “differently experienced” folks into the room. These don’t have to be inexperienced people in general, but rather people specifically inexperienced in the particular problem being solved. The main idea is to get some different thinking injected into the conversation. One of the main tenets of the Monkey Cage Sessions problem solving technique I’ve written about before is inviting people of different experience levels and backgrounds into a single session that allows views of the problem from multiple perspectives.

We need our assumptions to be questioned if we hope to find the absolute best solutions. Let’s tolerate a few “dumb” and “naive” questions and appreciate fresh perspectives on the problem. We might be surprised what solutions we come up through the power of a little naiveté.

What do you think? Have you ever encountered the power of naiveté in problem solving situations? Or do you think letting lesser experienced folks into complicated solution finding sessions is a waste of time?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell

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