Special Report – Don’t Solve It, Skip It

In most organizations, the CIO and IT department are mired in problems, from network security to thin budgets to keeping up with fast technological changes. No matter what type of problems face your department right now, I want you to do a quick problem-solving exercise.

Close your eyes for a moment and ask yourself: In my company, what is the biggest problem I’m facing right now? Keep your eyes closed until you’ve come up with an answer. (To get maximum benefit from this exercise, you may want to jot down your answer.)

Now, with that biggest problem firmly in mind, here’s what you’re going to do: you’re going to take that problem … and skip it.

The typical approach is to grab that problem and attempt to solve it. The problem with trying to solve your problem is that in order to solve it, you engage it, and by engaging it, you embrace it, which often leads to getting your wheels mired in the mud of the problem, stuck in crisis mode and unable to move forward.

I’m suggesting you take a different path.

Rather than engaging with your biggest roadblocks by confronting them, often you’ll find you can simply leap over them. This is not a philosophy of denial, avoidance, or procrastination. It is a powerful kind of conceptual jujitsu that teases previously invisible crises out into the open; where we can take decisive action to address them.

The key to unraveling our most intractable problems often lies in recognizing that the problem confronting us is not our real problem. The real problem lies hidden behind the distraction of what we think our problem is. Skipping your biggest problem means stepping outside the flat plane of the existing situation and gaining a clearer perspective, and this often triggers flash foresights that lead to new opportunities far bigger and more productive than you could have imagined based on the original (incorrect) problem you were trying to solve.

Take Eli Lilly, for example. In 1999, to solve the big molecular puzzles to create new pharmaceuticals, and breathe life into their falling stock prices, Lilly needed to hire at least another 1,000 new PhD employees and they frankly did not have the money. Lilly’s problem was, to put it bluntly, no money.

Or was it?

By skipping the problem, they realized that their real challenge was solving molecular problems. So they created an online scientific forum called InnoCentive, where they posted difficult chemical and molecular problems and offered to pay anyone who could solve them.

By making the site open to any scientist with an Internet connection and posting the problems in over a dozen languages, the company created a global virtual R&D talent pool that soon found solutions to problems that had stumped its own researchers. As a result, they created new drugs, and Lilly survived — and thrived.

How did Lilly solve their money problem? They didn’t. Instead, they skipped it. In fact, their money problem was not the problem; it was only what they thought the problem was.

So what about that biggest problem of yours? Like Lilly, if you hold the problem up and look at it from different angles, you may well find that it is not your true problem and that rather than trying to solve it, you may fare far better by skipping it entirely.

Here is a suggestion: As you read through the rest of this article, keep that problem you defined in the back of your mind. By the time we reach the end, perhaps you will have had your very own flash foresight.

Peeling the onion

In the exercise we just did, there is a specific reason I asked you to close your eyes in order to think of your biggest problem. It illustrates a crucial point. Closing one’s eyes helps to concentrate one’s thinking but it also shuts out what may be one’s greatest opportunities. Focusing on what we have identified as our biggest problem creates a kind of blindness. We start seeing the world through the tinted glasses of that particular problem and become color blind to ideas lying elsewhere on the spectrum of possibility.

In the exercise, identifying your biggest problem is an important first step. The far more important step, though, is to open your eyes again and start looking because whatever your initial answer to the question is, that’s probably not the answer you’re looking for. The problem you identified will probably not be the real problem; however, it is often an excellent starting point from which to begin the search for the real problem, a search process you might think of as peeling the onion.

A few years ago, I visited one of the largest international accounting and professional service firms in the world and met with their CEO, whom I will call Ed. Ed’s company was responsible for auditing many of the world’s largest public and private companies, a workload that involved well more than a hundred thousand employees worldwide.

When I asked Ed what his company’s biggest problem was, he said, “Our biggest problem is getting enough people on staff to service all our clients globally. There’s so much opportunity there, but we just don’t have the manpower to service it all.”

As we talked, I began asking him for more information and detail about their situation. The specific questions I asked were not really that important, because there wasn’t something specific that I was looking for. The point was to look. We were peeling the onion.

Ed had his laptop with him, with wireless access to everything yet, to my surprise, he was unable to find some of the information we were looking for. Why? Well, explained Ed, his company was actually composed of member firms in nearly 150 countries, with a dizzying array of different legal and logistic structures. He started telling me about a raft of incompatibilities, how different regions had developed different solutions with different systems and protocols, and how it wasn’t at all easy for the various pieces of the whole to communicate clearly and efficiently with each other.

Bingo. We had found our way to the heart of the onion.