Three Ways To Solve A Problem Innovatively … Plus One If They Don’t Work

Problem-solving can be approached strategically and innovatively. There are three fertile ways of conquering the problem cause. If they don’t work, focusing on the problem effect opens up another vista of opportunities

Whenever we are blocked from doing something we want to do, naturally we turn our attention to the problem that is holding us back. It’s the most logical thing in the world. We don’t want the effect, so we set to work on the cause.

What is not so obvious is how to tackle the problem. Usually we use a ‘shotgun’ approach. Just think of something. Anything. Start brainstorming. The more ideas the better. Maybe one will work? We wander all over the place and sometimes get lucky.

But, if a workable outcome is achieved, it usually comes with a commensurate cost in cash, time or other resources. As long as the cost of any solution is roughly equivalent to the benefit, we usually proceed. The effort is justified by the result.

However, although problem-solving is not a science, a study of hundreds of ideas that have successfully resolved business problems reveals that there is an innovative thinking structure that can be employed to deal with any problem. And when this is done, the effort is usually minuscule compared to the result realized. The solution is not inevitably a costly one.

There are three principal strategies that can be employed to resolve problems innovatively:

· Avoiding or preventing the problem from occurring;

· Eliminating the problem altogether;

· Transforming the problem into something of value.

Avoiding or Preventing the Problem

This is probably the most elegant of the three strategies. There is something immensely satisfying about recognizing a potential problem and taking steps to stop it doing what it would normally do it. And in doing so, one is in very good company. Warren Buffett once observed: “Charlie [Munger] and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them.” And before him, Albert Einstein: “Intellectuals solve problems; geniuses prevent them.”

Many hotels have adopted such a pre-emptive strategy in dealing with the perennial problem of guests leaving the lights and TV on when they exit their rooms, resulting in needless waste of energy. By introducing a room key card that must be inserted in a slot just inside the door to activate electricity for the room, they automatically ensure guests turn off all power when they take their key card on leaving the room. The problem of guests forgetting to turn off power is avoided by ensuring that they don’t need to remember to do so.

Eliminating the Problem

If elegance isn’t really your thing, perhaps permanently wiping out a problem is more satisfying. Not as subtle as the pre-empting solution of course but it’s hard to beat that ‘gotcha’ feeling when the problem no longer exists. A good contemporary example of this would be a cosmetic products’ producer wanting to do its bit for the environment. Thinking innovatively, it reduced its carbon footprint by eliminating packaging through utilizing one of its products to package the others, thus completely eliminating leftover packaging requiring disposal.

Then again, a paint manufacturer who faced the disruptive problem of needing to use and then remove cleaning solvents after each batch of paint was produced, effectively negated the need for that task by reformulating its paint recipes so that the cleaning solvents helpfully became a first ingredient in the new batch, no longer needing removal.

Transforming the Problem

This third strategy is the most radical one of the three. It doesn’t pussy-foot around. This meets the problem head-on and literally turns it upside down. Think turning an opportunity into a threat. Think turning a liability into an asset.

The following example illustrates a problem that has been literally as well as figuratively turned upside down. A metal products manufacturer creatively solves the problem of waste jamming its production equipment and harming output, by installing that same equipment upside down and allowing gravity to deal with the waste.

Another transformational one. Soliciting donations is a tough gig because most people instinctively balk when asked to spend money for which they are ostensibly receiving nothing in return. They are unwilling donors. The United Nations Children’s Fund has transformed unwilling donors into willing donors by asking air travelers for currency that they cannot spend in their destination country. For the traveler, the convenience of getting rid of worthless currency overcomes any normal reluctance to give.

Plus One …

And if all else fails, then there’s always ‘Plus one’. Although counter-intuitive, this strategy actually ignores the recognized problem altogether and focuses instead on the undesirable effect the problem is causing.

An example would be a horticulture and nursery operator who innovatively deals with the problem of its product unintentionally killing lawns as well as weeds by collaborating with others to develop lawn seeds that are resistant to the weedkiller.

And, this type of thinking can also be found where a regional government organization is tackling the problem of motorcyclists being accidentally run down by motorists who are simply unaware of their presence. Attempting to educate motorists to be more careful seems to have limited effect. Instead, steps are taken to over-ride normal noise pollution regulations to allow motorcycles to emit a much higher decibel sound because in so doing the loud noise alerts more motorists to their presence.

Problem-solving is admittedly more of an art than a science but it can be approached strategically and innovatively. Most of the time this involves concentrating on the problem subject through avoiding, eliminating or transforming the problem. If the problem subject proves to be intractable, turning attention to the problem object can open up a new vista of potential solutions.

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