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Dissolving Problems


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Given at Ignite Silicon Valley during Global Ignite Week on March 4th, 2010.

Published in: Design, Technology, Education

Dissolving Problems

  1. No compromise: Dissolving problems Jeff Lindsay @progrium Today I’m going to talk about dissolving problems, a concept by Russel Ackoff. Russ was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century akin to John Dewey or Peter Drucker. He was considered by some to be the Einstein of problem solving. Here’s the idea, starting with the problem.
  2. Solving a problem is about applying a solution to the problem The problem with solutions is they require the problem to exist. You have a problem, you find a solution, and apply it. If you remove the solution, the problem is still there waiting for you. Think about business: they provide solutions to problems, but if that problem actually disappeared, their solution is useless and they would go out of business.
  3. Dissolving a problem is about applying redesign to the system On the other hand, you can eliminate a problem by not allowing it to exist. You do this by redesigning the system you find it in. This process not only deals with the problem most effectively, it can allow an even better overall situation than if you just solved the problem.
  4. To illustrate, I have a story that compares several attempts at solving a problem with finally dissolving the problem. The story takes place in a large city in Europe that uses double- decker buses for public transportation.
  5. Driver In these buses, the driver is at the front separated from the passengers. There is an incentive program in place where the closer the driver stays on schedule, the more they are paid.
  6. Conductor In the back you have the conductor that collects fares and issues receipts as passengers get on board. With the help of undercover inspectors, the conductor is observed and the fewer missed fares collected, the more he is paid.
  7. Finally, the conductor signals the driver from the back entrance through the side mirror, which tells the driver everyone is on board and ready to go. You can see how the driver’s pay is dependent on how efficiently the conductor does their job.
  8. During peak hours, to prevent delays, the conductor allows everyone to board and then goes back to collect fares between stops. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t always be able to get back before the next stop to signal the driver that everybody was on board.
  9. As a result, hostility grew between drivers and conductors that even led to a number of violent episodes. When management found out...
  10. Management says... Ignore it. Absolve They ignored it at first. Now, hoping a problem will absolve itself is not entirely without merit. In a changing environment, problems can disappear on their own. Or sometimes problems are not as much of a problem as initially thought. Absolving can be pragmatic.
  11. However, the problem continued to get worse. So management actually had to come up with something.
  12. Management says... Go back to no incentives. Resolve A very natural response was to try and eliminate what was thought to be the cause of the problem, in this case, the incentives. This would revert to a previously working situation. Ackoff called this resolving as opposed to solving.
  13. Unfortunately, the drivers and conductors rejected the idea because it would reduce their earnings. So management set out to actually solve the problem. Find the best solution.
  14. Management says... Have them share incentive payments. Solve They came up with having them share incentive payments. A non-zero-sum game that put drivers and conductors in the same boat requiring them to work together. It was not a bad solution. In fact, it might have even worked if they started with it.
  15. But at that point the drivers and conductors were absolutely opposed to cooperating in any way. Management was just about to give up.
  16. Problem dissolver As a last resort, they brought in an outside consultant, that happened to be familiar with dissolving problems.
  17. The consultant looked hard at the problem, but then, and this is key, he decided to take a broader view of the system.
  18. He found something interesting: during peak hours, there were more buses running than there were bus stops. Using this insight, he proposed a redesign of how the system worked.
  19. During peak hours, the conductor would get off the bus. He would collect fares from people as they waited, and was still near the back of the bus to signal the driver.
  20. When peak hours were over, the conductor would get back on the bus as usual. The problem had been dissolved. Not only that, during peak hours there were LESS conductors necessary because there were fewer stops than buses. This meant huge savings for the company. By redesigning the system to dissolve the problem, a better situation was found than would ever have been possible before. And that is why you want to dissolve problems.