Special Report – Don’t Solve It, Skip It

It soon became clear to Ed that if he and all his current employees would be able to communicate and collaborate more effectively, they would not only not have to hire a lot of new people to service all their clients, but they might actually be able to trim and consolidate their staff a bit.

His problem, as it turned out, was not his problem. That is, there was another problem. While Ed’s firm was excellent at performing the services they provided to their clients, they were strikingly inefficient in how they managed their own internal information and communication. They had plenty of data, but inadequate systems to exploit it and turn it into action.

Since then, they have mounted a company-wide campaign to consolidate and integrate their global computer networks. Considering the size and complexity of their operation, this has turned out to be a huge undertaking and one that is well worth the effort. Although they are still only part way through the project, they report that they are already seeing huge gains in productivity and efficiency.

In terms of you and your company, think of the problem you’ve already identified as the top layer of an onion: peel it back by listing the components of the problem. Keep asking yourself, “Why is that a problem?” When you find an answer, then ask, “And why is that a problem?” Eventually, you’ll find yourself at the heart of the problem; often sooner than you might expect.

Focus on one issue

The power of peeling the onion is that it enables you to find that one place where, if you focus your effort, you can be genuinely effective. When the ancient Greek engineering genius Archimedes discovered the principle of leverage, he is said to have declared, “Give me a place to stand on, and I can move the world.” Approaching your biggest problem by onion-peeling it, instead of simply trying to solve it, reveals that powerful focal point to stand on.

While working on my graduate degree, I took a teaching position at a junior high school that turned out to be one of the first in the nation to have students from the inner city bused in. These kids would be my first teaching experience.

When I reported to my first day there, the other faculty were already complaining about the worst kids from the previous year, and saying how they dreaded having them back again. If you had asked any one of them to close his eyes and say, “What is the biggest problem we’re facing right now?” they would all have immediately given the same answer: this particular small group they referred to as “the killer kids.” So I said, “Well, why don’t you give them all to me?” That’s how I found myself teaching science to a crowd of junior high students known throughout the school as the worst of the worst, the ones who always got into trouble and consistently got nothing but D’s and F’s in every subject.

How do you solve your problem when your problem is everything? You don’t solve it: you skip it and start peeling the onion.

My first step was to forgo making any effort to try anything that any of the other teachers had already tried. Not that they were bad teachers; quite the contrary, some of them were quite good, and they certainly had the best of intentions. One or two had even made minor inroads in this subject or that. But it didn’t matter: nothing had made any significant or lasting difference. I had an advantage, though: I knew one thing these other teachers didn’t know, which was that their problem wasn’t really their problem. So I posed this question: What if they weren’t terrible students?

I gave them their first test individually and orally: no writing, no paper, no pencils, no hunching over desks; just me and one kid at a time, face-to-face. It turned out that they really knew their stuff. Not only did they remember everything we’d gone over in class, they would even explain their answers using the same hand gestures I’d used when teaching that topic in the first place.

The reason these kids had a history of such terrible grades was not that they weren’t smart; they were really smart. The problem was that they didn’t know how to read or write, at least not well enough to perform at any decent academic level. If they had to write the answers, they would freeze but they could talk the answers.

I got each student a cassette recorder and had them speak what they wanted to write into the microphone, then play it back and write down what they’d said. This helped them learn to connect what they were thinking with writing on the page. It worked. By the end of the school year, not one of those kids was failing.

Here’s the point: Sometimes a problem seems complex, with many components working against you all at once. Don’t try to solve everything at once. Keep peeling the onion until you find one problem you can address.

Suspend judgment

Suspending judgment is not an easy thing to do, because it often runs counter to our habits or instincts but it is an act that has great rewards.

Judgment blinds us from seeing new opportunities as well as hidden problems. When we hear about a new technology, read about a radical idea, or start looking outside the box in any way, often our first instinct is to judge, that is, to assess the value of this new information based on past experience.

But the past does not equal the future.

Becoming aware of the instinct to judge lets us take a breath, resist that knee-jerk assessment, and remove the blinders that keep us from seeing the invisible and doing the impossible.

For example, suppose someone told you they were going to start a bank in Michigan in 2009? You would judge this to be a bad idea but I have a friend who did just that. He was able to resist the tendency to judge the idea based on the crises in Detroit and Wall Street, and has done quite well as a result.

The skip it concept is one I’ve seen many people use to access enormous new opportunities. The key to using this trigger effectively is to start by making yourself willing to suspend judgment. Remember, snap judgment, no matter how sound they may seem to be, often obscure valuable insight.

Let go of the legacy

My dad worked for Allis-Chalmers when it was a mighty company. A major force in the nation’s World War II manufacturing effort, Allis-Chalmers had two big divisions, tractor and electrical. Speaking about the massive electric generators his company built, my dad once said, “The good news is, we made them so they’ll last a hundred years. That’s also the bad news.”