Solving Complex Problems–Put Aside the First Idea (4)

The most obvious idea is rarely the best approach to solve a persistent problem. It is true that most workday issues are straightforward and can be resolved in a more or less routine way. In these cases, the first ideas are usually good enough.

However, if a problem is of sufficient complexity to require more attention, then it is likely that there are more difficult or more subtle aspects than found in most routine problems. These persistent problems demand additional focus. If there were no unrecognized facets, the problem would not have grown to this proportion.

The different methods required to resolve these more complex problems are often not recognized or acknowledged. In many cases, the first idea, particularly if it originates from the boss, is seized and the creative energy shifts to the implementation. Time and resources are consumed. If the first approach works, fine. Often it does not, and the cycle of idea generation and implementation is repeated at higher cost.

It is extraordinarily difficult to break the habit of implementing the first idea.

That is where the lessons from the Oulipians can help. The Oulipo, a society founded in 1960 by writers, poets, and mathematicians, has an interest in the effect of self-imposed restrictions on the creation of literary texts. The literary work itself is generated with a specified rule in place. There are any number of good examples*: Lipograms–A full length novel that never uses the letter “e”; Snowballs–poems in which each word is one letter longer than the previous one; Tautograms–all words in the text begin and end with the same letter; Univocalism—only one vowel is used. Some experiments are astounding in ingenuity, others are less successful. One of the Oulipians’ objectives was to devise systems to ensure that writers did not run out of innovative possibilities. They also had a lot of fun.

So, how can their lessons be applied to generating solutions to real and difficult problems? The key is to add a restrictive condition to the analysis process and stick to it while searching for a solution. A very practical restriction for the problem-solving group (or individual) is an agreement to put aside the first serious approach without prejudice. In most cases, this decision often means to reject the first approach for the remainder of the discussion. Then, with this restriction, take a fresh mind to the work of analyzing the problem and generating new approaches. Although it will initially be uncomfortable, people will scratch harder, develop more insight into the problem, and allow more comprehensive solutions to emerge. The people can also have a lot of fun.

As an example, the groundskeepers at a golf course saw that one putting green was turning brown. A likely possibility was that additional water was needed. It was suggested that a week of watering would take care of the situation. However, before increasing the watering, the crew put aside the idea and investigated further. This analysis showed that the problem was due to an infestation from a pest. By putting aside the first suggestion, the green was restored to playing condition a week sooner.

This method has been used by many disciplined organizations. When it is introduced, it often takes a strong leader to maintain the restriction. Of course, some people will resist the approach. They may actually hold their first idea back and present others so that they can spring the pet later. Anyone can choose to game the system, but this only retards innovation.

A restricted form can catalyze innovation. Try it.

*Specific Examples: http://www.oulipocompendium.com

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