Problem Solving Prejudices

Your project, organization, or group came into existence for a reason. Whoever founded it came together around a particular purpose. Probably they did not believe that other organizations or competitors were providing an effective offering or solving a particular problem, so they started something new. Go back to the charter, the meeting minutes or emails, the original business plan, or the past board books of the project, organization, or group you are tasked with turning around to understand the purpose behind its creation. If that purpose or that big problem is still relevant today, then you are still in business.

That’s precisely what Steve Jobs did in 1996 when he returned to rescue Apple. The company had lost its edge, unable to deliver breakthrough products since its Macintosh line of personal computers debuted in 1984. When Jobs came back, he knew there was a market for easy, accessible computer products. He immediately centered the business around Apple’s “special sauce”: exceptional design focused on simplicity. That focus resulted in industry-changing products, from the best-selling iMac (favored by first-time PC users) to the iPod, iTunes, and of course, the iPhone.

You too must find the special sauce or core competency that will enable you to reposition yourself as the market leader or become the internal project, team, or program that can solve a big need or problem. Evaluate your competitors. Outline what they do, what you do, and which has a higher probability of success. Then identify overlaps between you and them. You may have a particular technology, partnerships, or existing infrastructure that would be costly for others to replicate and be competitive. You may have an expertise or access to a treasure trove of data that makes your project unique. Zero in on what you can do that others cannot. This is your core competency—and the key to your perfect world scenario.

With your core competency in mind, you can visualize a fresh future for your organization, project, or program. This perfect world scenario might be one where you leverage your core competency to mitigate a rising risk that has a negative impact on your customer base, constituency, or community. Or it might be one in which your core competency allows you to solve a problem that threatens your position in the market. Or perhaps your core competency (say, a breakthrough technology) will transform the way people live or work.

To visualize a new future, it often helps to focus on your customers’ or constituents’ pain points. Often in an effort to build something great, we fail to appreciate what they truly want and need—and therefore what will lead to our success. It’s like a software developer who keeps updating one of its products, now in decline, to “make it better.” Sure, every update optimizes the product’s performance or adds bells and whistles to it. But it also leads to error messages or prompts the end user to run endless updates that seem to pop up whenever he or she is right in the middle of an important task. The developer is so focused on improving the usability of its product that it fails to see the customer’s perspective that the updates are getting in the way of getting work done.

What if instead this software developer visualizes a future in which a happy end user relies on its product to complete a task successfully, shut down the computer at five o’clock, and attend a child’s soccer game? How could it turn around this failing product to allow this customer to do just that? It’s probably not by sending constant software updates that interrupt the work. Perhaps the solution is not technical; perhaps the solution lies in providing customers who don’t have the time or savvy to engage in complex computer updates the best-in-class software support.

All of us bring existing prejudices to how we approach problem-solving. Maybe the software developer can see only a technical solution to its failing product. Perhaps it cannot dig itself out of a hole because its organizational culture prioritizes technical issues and solutions, ignoring possible non-technical approaches or the viewpoints of non-technical staff. It is important that you continually test your assumptions and consider others’ perspectives.