Posts tagged: problem solving

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?

The Monkey Cage Sessions

monkey throwingI’ve seen a lot of strategies and “solutions” fail over the years primarily because the solution was crafted before the problem addressed was thoroughly understood.

Many times, the strategy or solution was the result of a brainstorming session filled with type A personalities (me included) ready to make things happen.

You may be familiar with the type of session I’m referencing. Usually, there’s a guru consultant leading the charge. He separates the group into teams and gives them Post-It notes and colored sticker dots. “Write down as many ideas as you can in the next 20 minutes. Don’t think too much. Be creative! No idea is dumb. Stick your ideas on the wall. Now go!” After 20 minutes, a leader from each group presents their best ideas to the rest of the room. Then each person in the room is allowed to vote for maybe six of his or her favorite ideas using the colored sticker dots. A few people are assigned the winning ideas and off we go.

Those types of session frustrate me. I’m concerned there’s too much action, too many unspoken assumptions, and not nearly enough serious thinking.

Over the years, I’ve developed a problem solving technique that I’ve found to work a lot better. I call it the Monkey Cage Sessions. The technique is all about thoroughly identifying the problems from all angles before developing carefully considered, thoughtful and collaborative solutions.

It’s got an intentionally silly name because the process should be fun.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1 Define the problems.

We start by gathering a group of cross-functional people – ideally from different levels of the organization – together in a room to talk about the problem or problems we’re trying to solve. This could be as simple as enhancing a Careers page on the corporate website or as complicated as building a complete company strategic plan. It’s important to define the general scope of the problem, but it should be defined fairly loosely so as not to stifle the discussion.

The rules of the meeting are fairly simple. We only discuss problems. No solutions. This is a license to bitch. Let it be cathartic.

I usually stand at the whiteboard, marker in hand, and write down everything everyone says. There is no need to be overly structured here, and anything anyone says is legitimate. We throw it all at the wall and we’ll sort it out later.

Sometimes people want to debate whether or not something another person says is really a problem. If someone said it, it’s at least a perceived problem. It’s legitimate. Also, there is often an attempt to offer an explanation for why a problem exists. The explanation is covering for another problem, so that problem should be written down.

People are always tempted to offer solutions, even when they think they’re offering problems. For example, someone might say it’s a problem that we don’t have a content management system. Actually, a content management system might be the solution to a problem. What problem might a content management system solve? Beware of any problem statement that starts with “We need…” and be prepared to break down that need into the problems needing the solution.

Sometimes the problems offered up are very broad and vague. In those cases, it’s important to work with the group to dissect that broad problem into its component parts.

This first session generally uncovers a LOT of problems, but the problem is still usually not completely identified yet. Which leads to…

Step 2 Categorize the problems

While the chaotic approach of the first session works well to get an initial set of problem descriptions, it’s important to create some order in order to prepare for the problem solving stage. So Step 2 involves writing down all of the problems and sorting them into logical categories. I don’t have any pre-determined set of categories. Instead, I prefer to the let the problems listed dictate the categorization.

Step 3 – Widen the circle

We probably have a pretty good description of the problems now, but we’ve also still likely missed some. For Step 3 we send the typed and categorized list of problems to the original group as well as a widened circle of people. The original group will likely have thought of a couple more issues since the day of the meeting, and the new group of people will almost definitely add new problems to the list. Since this is the final stage of problem description, we want to give this step at least a few days to allow the team to think this through as completely as possible.

Step 4 – Develop the solutions

Finally, we can start solving the problems. Woo hoo!

Now it’s time to gather a subset of the original meeting to start working towards solutions. There should be at least a few days between Step 3 and Step 4. We want to give people some time to think over the full problem set. The group should enter the Step 4 meeting with at least some basic solution ideas. There is no need to come into the room with comprehensive solutions that solve every problem on the list, but the solutions considered should certainly attempt to solve as many problems as possible (without causing too many new problems).

I usually find that by this point many of the solutions are fairly obvious. But there should be good discussion about the relative merits of each suggested solution, and the solutions should be measured up against the problem list to determine how comprehensive they are.

I like to end the meeting by assigning people to lead each of the proposed solutions. Obviously, any suggested solution from this session will need to be fleshed out in a lot more detail, and the leader from this meeting is responsible for determining the viability and solution and then potentially leading the development and ultimate execution to completion.

Subsequent progress is then handled via a separate execution process.

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I’ve had very good luck over the years using this technique. Some of the primary benefits I’ve found are:

  1. Better understanding of the problems
    As the initial meeting wraps up, most people are inevitably feeling enlightened about the problem. They’ve outwardly expressed their own assumptions (which sometimes even they didn’t know they were making) and they’ve understood the perspectives and assumptions of others. They’ve seen the problem in an entirely new light.
  2. More comprehensive solutions
    The heightened understanding of the problem and the critically important time between steps to allow the team to be more thoughtful in their ideas. Those ideas are usually pretty all-encompassing solutions to start with, but the discussions in Step 4 lead the team to collectively choose the best of the best of the solutions offered.
  3. Better execution
    Solutions are nothing but fancy ideas until they’re executed. And poor execution can cause even the best ideas to fail. The process of fully defining the problems and sharing that work with wide circles of people is an incredibly important stage that sets the foundation for success in execution. When the execution team provides input in the process and understands the basis for the solution, they are far more supportive in the effort. They are also far more prepared to make the daily, detailed decisions that are often the difference between success and failure.

So, that’s the Monkey Cage Sessions. I hope you find it helpful. If you try implementing the process in your business, I’d love to hear how it goes.

What do you think? Would this process work in your organization? Have you ever used a similar process?


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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