Friday, October 1, 2010

Business Management Requires More Than Problem-Solving

The rear left wheel of a motor car is excellent. There is nothing to criticise. But if you believed that all you needed on a motor car was the rear left wheel, then there would be something wrong with your belief, not with the wheel. I use this analogy when pointing out that our existing thinking methods and habits are excellent – but not enough.

Our traditional thinking habits are based on judgment. If something is wrong, you criticise it and seek to put it right. Or else judgment selects the appropriate ‘box’ from experience, and then we know how to deal with something.

Far too many executives believe that management thinking consists of continuity and problem-solving. This means keeping things going as they are going and then solving the problems that arise from time to time. So business management thinking is all about problem-solving.

But what if something is not a problem? What if something is excellent and cannot be faulted?

Why, then, we do not bother to think about it. ‘If it is not broken, don’t fix it’.

Obviously this relates to complacency, where everything is considered to be so satisfactory that there is no need for change. But even when there is no general complacency, there is difficulty in thinking about things which are perfectly satisfactory. That is the result of our critical thinking habit.

A chef makes a wonderful omelette. It may even be the best omelette ever made. So the omelette is served for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner every day. The omelette continues to be wonderful. There is nothing wrong with the omelette. There is, however, something very wrong with the variety of meals served.

There is huge inadequacy of language for dealing with this situation. You cannot say that something is not ‘good’ when it is in fact excellent. To say that it is ‘not good enough’ implies that it could be better - which is not always the case. You might try ‘excellent, but not enough’.

Every subject taught in education is excellent. The curriculum is filled with these excellent subjects. The result is that there is no space for other, rather important subjects, like ‘how value is created in society’ and ‘thinking’ (as a subject). In the EU, 25% of time in school is spent on mathematics. This is excellent. No one could challenge the excellence of mathematics. Most people, however, use about 3% of the maths they learn at school. But what if someone wants to be a rocket scientist? You teach him or her the extra maths needed as part of the rocket science course!

There are at least three situations involved here:


‘The good is the enemy of the best’. This means that we stop thinking when we have reached a ‘good result’. Had we gone on thinking a bit more, we might have found an even better result. This often happens in medicine, where an adequate treatment prevents the emergence of a better treatment.

We do not need to stop thinking because we have an adequate answer. Unlike maths exercises in school, there are often more answers than just one. So we need to develop the habit of continuing to think about the matter even when we have an adequate answer.

That needs to be a habit of mind and a belief. The belief is that there might always be a better way of doing something.

The practical point then arises. How much time, effort and energy do we put into finding the ‘better answer’? Often there is a need for choice, for decision and for action. While we may spend some time looking for abetter answer, this time is limited. Yet even a little time spent looking for a better answer is not time wasted. Now and again a better answer will indeed be found.


In the first situation we simply hoped that there might be ‘another way’ and were willing to invest some time in finding this other and better way. In this second situation we think we know that there are other possible ways. The difficulty is in persuading others to explore these ways. The general attitude is that if something is satisfactory - and even excellent - what is the point of looking at other ways? These may be different, but they cannot be better than excellent.

It is not possible to start from the deficiencies of the present approach, because none may be apparent. It is necessary to focus on the values and benefits provided by the other ways. This is very different from seeking to find fault in the existing approach. A comparison is then made between the values offered by the other methods and the values offered by the existing approach. Big differences may now be seen.

There are two motor cars. Each one runs well and is economical on fuel. There are no obvious faults to be seen in either. Further examination, however, shows that one car can carry more people. The same car has better passenger protection in the event of a crash. This car may even be easier to get into and out of. The interior is easier to clean. All these advantages only become visible through a comparison between one car and the other. It is only after this comparison that the advantages in one car can be seen as faults in the car that does not offer these advantages. This process is very different from an initial criticism of the first car.


Here the matter being considered is excellent in itself. It is not going to be changed or replaced. It is now an issue of saying that ‘it is not sufficient’. One wheel on a car is excellent - but it is not sufficient. Traditional thinking is excellent - but it is not sufficient. The chef’s omelette is excellent - but it is not sufficient.


The major difficulty in all three of the situations outlined above is that you are dealing with hope and promises. In the first situation there is the ‘hope’ that further thinking will come up with something better.

In the second situation there is the ‘promise’ that examination of the values offered by the alternatives will show their merit. In the third situation there is the ‘promise’ that adding new things will provide increased benefit.

In none of these situations is there the driving force of criticism. If you succeed in showing that something is wrong or inadequate, then there is the motivation to find something better. It is true that in hindsight you may see that the existing approach may be inadequate when compared with another. This is, however, only visible when you have agreed to explore the other approach, and it cannot be used up-front to persuade anyone to carry out such an exploration.


The lateral thinking technique of ‘challenge’ is designed to prevent the mind sliding smoothly down the existing patterns. Challenge puts a block on the usual patterns and forces the thinker to do without the usual concept of ‘approach’. Challenge is never a criticism. In effect, challenge says:

…’this may be the best idea but let us look for others’

…’this may be the only possible idea but let us make an effort to find others’

…’if this idea (concept or approach) were not usable what would we do?’

Challenge is a powerful tool, but it does need discipline. If challenge is only used to focus on ideas that are weak or faulty, then its power is lost. Challenge may be used to seek alternatives even to the very best ideas.


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