Special Report - Don't Solve It, Skip It

By Daniel Burrus

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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.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.”While many emerging countries have a problem of no infrastructure, America’s problem is the opposite: it has tons of infrastructure. Generators like the Allis-Chalmers behemoths are gigantic, inefficient, costly to run, costly to maintain, and gradually breaking down. The problem is, they still work. So what do we do, dismantle them all? It’s the same with our highways and bridges, our municipal water and sewage systems, our power grid.

It is the curse of the legacy system. It works too well to throw it away, but not well enough to move us forward, and it’s growing more dilapidated and more of a handicap with every passing day. It is an anchor, holding us back as we strive to drag our way into the 21st Century. We have a decision to make: Are we going to sink by the weight of our old stuff?

The crippling problem of legacy systems is not a dilemma of nations only; it is also the routine scourge of companies, organizations, and bureaucracies of all sizes, who easily become so handicapped by their expensive, outdated computer hardware and software systems that they lose all hope of retaining any competitive edge. It seems easier and less expensive to keep using the old systems but it only seems that way if you’re looking in the rearview mirror.

Look out the windshield into the future and you get a very different picture. With your eyes on the visible future, based on the certainty of hard trends, it suddenly becomes apparent that making the change from the inside out will be less costly by far than having to make it from the outside in. Staying with the old, the legacy system, is a lot more painful than transforming with the new.

The challenge of legacy systems goes beyond hardware and software; it also applies to our processes. Scratch the surface of practically any company or organization and you find ways of doing things that have been developed and implemented because, to some extent, they work. Supply and inventory processes, accounting and customer service processes, research and decision-making processes, organizational and communication processes -- all of them so bloated and cumbersome yet so entrenched they can seem almost impossible to abandon yet staying with them can be suicidal.

But here is the real problem, bigger by far than our aging highways and dinosaur generators: not just legacy systems but legacy thinking.

For most of history, weighing the value of holding on to or letting go of outmoded technologies was an issue we could safely ignore or postpone most of the time. Not anymore. In the new technological environment, our tools and systems become antiquated with astonishing rapidity. Because of the pace of change, dealing with legacy systems is something we have to learn to do constantly, because what is cutting edge today will be out of date before the steam cools on tomorrow morning’s coffee.

In the old world, the rule was: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

In today’s world, the rule is: “If it works, it’s already obsolete.”

Therefore, ask yourself, “What are the legacy systems in my company? Would it be wiser to let go of the old stuff right now and skip into the future?”

Ready, set, SKIP!

Refer back to that “biggest problem” you brought to mind in the beginning of this article. As you’ve been reading, have you been getting glimmers of ideas about ways you might skip that problem altogether? Even if you had just a tiny glimmer, don’t get stuck; move forward. Often, you can’t see the real problem because you’re blinded by what you perceive is the problem. Forget about what you think the problem is. Often the real problem and its solutions will surface once you eliminate the perceived problem.

Ultimately, every problem has a solution; some better than others. There are many paths to the same destination, and some don’t have roadblocks. By asking yourself if you can skip the problem completely, you free your mind to look beyond the roadblock. That is usually where the best solution lies.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.