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November 2, 2009

Lookin’ for Solutions in All the Wrong Places…

In this post, Brenda Haines takes inspiration from a ‘Fast Company’ column and outlines four steps you can use to find new ways to solve your business challenges…

Stop Solving Your Problems. Instead, look for the folks who have already solved them.”

Brenda HainesSo reads the headline of the November 2009 Fast Company ‘Made to Stick’ Column. If you don’t regularly read this column, it’s a good one, worth checking out. (Columnists Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.)

The column describes a Procter & Gamble business challenge that internal teams had been unable to crack. So, the project’s team leader took the team to the San Diego Zoo, where biomimicry experts made a connection between the P&G challenge and the gecko. According to the column, the session produced other interesting connections as well, and according to Heath and Heath, the visit produced eight fresh approaches to the challenge.

The column suggests that part of the reason we can be stymied in our problem-solving is that we take a far too vertical approach. We look at what others in our area are doing, then we ask specialists for help. But, sometimes, the best solution comes from a completely different realm. That’s the idea behind the entire science of biomimicry – which studies nature and applies what we can learn from natural solutions to human challenges.

While impressed with the examples, the column resonated with me for a completely different reason. As a small firm, we’re often asked about our specialties. We have intentionally chosen not to specialize. We serve organizations in the governnment, non-profit and business realms because we believe that all sectors can learn from one another – and we have seen that happen in practice.

So why doesn’t that happen more naturally?

The Fast Company column suggests we may our own worst enemies in looking for new ideas because we are so blinded by our own experiences and industry knowledge.

So, how can we get ourselves out of this mindframe?

    1. Start by naming the problem in generic terms. Industry-specific jargon should be eliminated
    2. Make sure your definition gets to the core of the challenge.
    3. Think about your new problem definition and then ask yourself whether another sector, organization, person or animal deals with a similar problem.
    4. Study the solutions used in other arenas as inspiration for your own problem-solving

If you’re still stumped, talk with people outside your industry, surf Websites in entirely different industries or pick up a magazine/journal you don’t normally read. Sometimes, I’ve found solutions in the most surprising places.

Do you have other tactics you’ve found useful in solving a difficult challenge? If so, I’d love to hear them.

– Brenda