Tag Archives: Problem solving

Stuck? Try Using Innovation by Analogy


weightsWhen people are engaged in problem solving, it is not uncommon that they get stuck when searching for solutions.   Or, you may not be stuck per se, but you feel your ideas lack imagination.   When either of these occurs, we can benefit from some external stimulus to help us break through to new creative insights.    One tool that you can use is called Innovation By Analogy.

University of Texas Cognitive psychologist, Dr. Art Markman, is one expert into how people think.  He explains in his book Tools for Innovation: The Science Behind the Practical Methods That Drive New Ideas that very often we have in our minds the information to creatively solve problems, but we often have difficulty accessing it or even recognizing how what we already know can be applied.   Often, innovative solutions are merely the re-application of other solutions in some slightly different way.   The trick is figuring out which pieces of knowledge are relevant to the new problem you are trying to solve.

We think, says Dr. Markman, by looking at a problem in a certain way, and then searching our mental “data banks” as if our brain were like Wikipedia looking for the right entry to read.   Just as in Wikipedia (or using Google, for that matter) the references you uncover are dependent on what “search words or phrases” you decide to type into the search window.   For those of you who have tried Google searches before, you know it is somewhat of an art form.   Deciding on the correct search terms is key.

Imagine this as your problem:

You have just started a weight training program, 4 days per week.  Your spouse bought you a weight set for the holidays, and you have been highly pleased with your progress so far.  You are assigned a new job that will require extensive travel, and you would not like to see your new personal health initiative abandoned.   You can’t depend on the chance that every hotel will have an adequately equipped fitness center.  The idea of lugging your weights with you (in a separate suitcase, perhaps) seems like it will push you past your baggage weight limit with the airline).  So, how might you solve this problem?

There are multiple solution pathways you might go down.  The one(s) you choose depends largely on how you choose to frame the problem statement.

You could think of the problem as “how do I bring my personal weight set with me when I travel?”   Framed in this way, it is a transportation problem.   What is the cheapest means of shipping precious or heavy materials with you when you travel?  You could pay the baggage surcharge and ship them on the airplane.   You could consider other freight forwarding services as well.

If you wanted to get creative, you might ask yourself, “Who else has solved this problem?”  What about musicians who perform in a different city every night?  What about someone with a health condition who needs oxygen or other specialized medical equipment to be nearby?  Investigating these analogous situations (even though they do not have anything to do with your weight shipping problem), may lead you to other possible solutions.   Perhaps the solution is traveling by bus or van (where you can bring more weight).   Maybe there are freight-forwarding services that specialize in quick, personal service.  Maybe you could choose to rent some equipment in your destination city.

Another way to think about your problem might be, “I prefer NOT to lug my weights with me, what can I do when I get to my hotel that allows me to keep up with my exercise regime?”  In this case, you have taken YOUR WEIGHTS out of the equation.     Now this is a problem of substitution – what else might I be able to do while on the road the yields the same benefits as my weight program?  This line of thinking may lead you to improvising exercises with things you will readily find in your hotel room (how about a new use for your night stand?).  Or, you might think about other forms of physical conditioning that build core body strength without depending on weights.   You might ask here, “who else has solved this problem?   Well, your research might lead you to a program developed by the Navy Seals called TRX Training.  It replaces machines and weights using your own body weight to provide the resistance you need for muscle development.  So, you might find some TRX exercises that you could easily adapt to some of the settings you might find in a typical hotel.

Or, how about reframing your problem this way: “I want to have a set of weights that don’t have the weight or the bulk in them while I’m travelling, but can have the weight added at the time I want to use them.”   Notice, that what we’re doing here is to think about the problem more abstractly for a second. We’re not really talking much about the weight as the item to be transported any longer.  Instead, weight is just something to be added when it is going to be used.

Does reframing the question in this way lead you down yet another path?   What other things can you think of that collapse when in storage, but can have something added to it when you want to use it?

How about an air mattress?  In this case the analogy is a bit removed in that the thing you fill an air mattress with has very little weight.  But the idea is the same, filling something in your hotel room, (say with water at 3.785kg per gallon).   Now your analogous thinking has led you to consider what you could bring (e.g. a deflatable pouch that could be filled with water and hung from a bar in some manner.)

So there in a nutshell is the process in innovation by analogy.  Just follow these steps.

1)    REFRAME the problem.  Like we did with our weight problem above.  Re-state it making different assumptions as you go. (taking my weights, substituting something for them, and taking them in a different form than is common) You might want to reframe multiple times to force yourself to consider a richer array of solutions.

2)    ASK “What is it like?”  Use analogies, metaphors and associations to connect other situations to your newly framed problem statements.   As an example, one oil pipeline company concerned with the habitual problem of leaks, considered the process of clotting in the human blood stream as their analogy.  They investigated what chemical additives they could add to the pipeline contents that would exhibit similar clotting behaviors as human blood when exposed to air.)

3)    ASK “Who (or what) else solves this problem?”  Think about other organizations products, groups companies (most likely outside of your industry) who have tackled the aspect of the problem you are now considering.  Think also about examples from nature.  Then study them.   Here is another example:  One health care organization I know was thinking about improving its patient satisfaction scores.  They recognized that one source of patient dissatisfaction came from waiting – which is a common occurrence.  They asked themselves who else has managed to make waiting seem less unsatisfying.  Their thoughts turned to DISNEY.   This led them to consider how they could make their waiting environments more stimulating, educational, and engaging with artful decoration, TV programming, toys for children, etc.

4)    CONSIDER “how might I adapt their solution to my situation?”   This step should be easiest. You need to figure out how the analogous solution could be modified in some manner to work in your specific situation, cultural environment, within your desired budget, and so forth.

So the next time you are stuck, or unimpressed by the inventiveness of the options you are considering, try the technique of Innovation By Analogy.  Who knows where it might lead you?

Other Resources:

Analogy is the Essence of Innovation, by Art Markman, Ph.D., in Psychology Today

How to use analogies for breakthrough innovations, by Dipl. Wi.-Ing. Katharina Schild, Prof. Dr. Cornelius Herstatt, and Dr. Christian Lüthje, Institute of Technology and Innovation Management, Technical University of Hamburg

Analogies Are the Way of Breakthrough Innovation, by Michael S. Slocum, realinnovation.com 

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Slowing Down to Move Fast


Tell me if this sounds like how your organization approaches problem solving.   Once a problem emerges, a responsible executive or manager calls a meeting.   At the table are key people who have relevant knowledge and experience.   The meeting organizer describes the problem.  The next step is for people to announce their suggested solutions to the problem – what they feel should be done.

The next step in the process is for individuals to advocate for their own idea.   They describe why they proposed what they did, and why they believe it is the best idea on the table.  Now, depending on the meeting facilitation skill of the organizer and the degree to which they feel their own idea is better than all others suggested, the subsequent rounds of advocacy can become increasingly intense.

Consensus does not seem to be emerging, and people advocate for their own ideas with increasing ferocity.   In this situation, extraverted persons (or those with higher organizational rank) have a decided advantage.  Ultimately, the introverts begin to shut down, and stop contributing to the discussion.   You DO make a decision because you must . . . but the one we selected is not one the entire group REALLY believes in.   The one person whose idea was selected leaves the meeting content, but many of the others present do not feel the process was honest and objective.

After the meeting, the unbelieving members of your team don’t enthusiastically support the effort, and in some cases even demonstrate passive-aggressive behavior that actually undermines the chance of success.

Sound too familiar?  If so, you can take at least some solace in the fact that you are probably not alone. In today’s fast-paced world, it seems that we tend to value people who can face problems and solve them quickly and effectively.  Time is money (so they say) so we instinctively feel the need to dive in and take action whether it is right or wrong.

Creative Problem Solving – PROBLEM FORMULATION

What we need instead, is a PROCESS that guides teams through a series of facilitated steps to help them better understand what is behind the problem to be solved, so they can generate more effective solutions.  Here is a graphical representation of one such process used by Procter and Gamble at their innovation center.It is designed to specifically slow down problem solving by inserting a whole new set of steps not evident in the case example that led off this article.  It is the region of the pie chart depicted in orange called “Problem Formulation.”  While it represents a full third of this physical pie, it should represent about 50 percent of the total amount of effort and time!

Why so many steps?

Some of you are thinking that this seems wasteful and unnecessary.   Let me try to make the counterargument.

In the problem-solving description I included at the top of this article, we see that different people launched their own suggested solution based on how THEY individually see the problem.   In most organizations, this is greatly influenced by what functional role one plays in the organization.    If the problem is to grow sales revenue, the engineers may feel that the key point is about sales force effectiveness and training:  “If our sales people could just explain our product features better, we would sell more.”  From the sales perspective the problem may have more to do with having the WRONG product features or perhaps too high a cost.   Operations people may feel the product specifications are too complex and exacting, thus driving up costs.   All perspectives are perhaps “truthy” but all are heavily colored by the different perspectives of each group, each of which is relying on different facts –- anecdotal or empirical — that inform their view.

What we need is a process that carefully considers a new set of facts, ones that inform all the participants similarly–so that we are all developing solutions from the same final perspective.   In some cases we need to broaden our view (beyond our own parochial viewpoint) and in other cases we need to make our view more granular to better appreciate the subtleties behind each layer of the problem.

Another problem is that we form opinions based on our individual world views.  We believe certain things to be “true” based on our cumulative life experiences, but sometimes what we hold onto as “truth” may in fact not be.

We may believe, for example, that customers would prefer lower prices.   We may have had many clients even say these words to us.   This seems like an incontrovertible fact that needs no further debate.   However, if we showed customer a product or service offering that had several important new features or attributes, they might actually be willing to pay a much higher price if they believe greater value was provided.

Developing deeper understanding of the problems in all its facets and layers is perhaps the most important step.

Here are some guidelines that may help:

  • Rely on diverse teams.   Eclectic groups are likely to bring new and fresher insights and perspectives to bear.  So mix them up by age, gender, race, rank and function.  Always include some people who are “outsiders” and are not as likely to be blinded by conventional organizational wisdom.
  • Get outside of your organization.  Most of the time, answers and ideas don’t lie inside the walls of our company.  Don’t assume you KNOW what your customers want. Go out and talk with them.  Observe them if you can. Listen with empathy. Speak less and listen more.   Look for deeper insights into what is behind their actions and words. Visit competitors, suppliers or even companies outside your market or industry.  Every organization I have ever visited does something better than the way I would do it.   Learn from others and copy ideas that bring you internal value.
  • Engage in divergent thinking.  Linus Pauling was asked once how he comes up with a good idea.  His answer was “Simple.  Start with a lot.”   We just completed a wonderful creative problem-solving workshop for senior executives at Xavier University around the question of how we drive future growth.   After spending one day in problem definition, we generated over 200 ideas, which, over two days we filtered down to about 12 key ones.   And finally, these were condensed to about 6 ideas, which we are now developing plans to move forward.  This process helped make everyone feel we considered their ideas, not to mention a seeming universe of possibilities, and in the end  everyone felt we had a few killer ideas with great value and promise.

Other Related Resources:

7 Step Problem Solving  (watch video)

Why Meetings Fail and What to Do About it?

Why Meetings Fail

How to Make Your Meetings Fail

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First Step in Problem Solving


I was having dinner with a friend of mine recently. He is now retired, but was a highly successful Wall Street executive (and, in my view) a brilliant person who has deep insights about economic and financial issues. The conversation revolved around what it would take to improve economic conditions in the United States, which seem weak now and show possibilities of worsening.

He offered a variety of prescriptive ideas and among them was a call to eliminate or restrict union influence–especially in the public sector. He cited the following study: Employer Costs for Employee Compensation Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It shows that private industry employers spent an average of $28.57 per hour worked for total employee compensation in December 2011, while total compensation costs for state and local government workers averaged $40.90 per hour worked in December 2011. This represents a 43% cost premium for state and local government employees (a significant portion of the discrepancy is attributable to benefits).

As you can imagine, the conversation became animated, and we discussed issues related to the importance of meritocracy, of worker productivity and so forth. You couldn’t escape the conclusion that this was an emotionally charged issue for both of us. It is also one that I am not wishing to debate here.

As I reflected on this discussion I thought about how we all have biases and ways of looking at the world based on our accumulated life experiences. Whether you are anti-union or against greedy or incompetent executives, one thing is certain, we all feel strongly about our viewpoint, which is emotionally rooted in us. The longer the discussion continues, the more entrenched our views tend to become. None of this leads to high-minded debate. In the end I was calling my friend a heartless capitalist and he charged me with being a left-wing nutjob.

I was also struck by the fact that I was debating with someone for whom I had the highest level of respect and who I know to be a person of high integrity and intelligence. Yet the debate degenerated to a level that left neither one of us persuaded, nor produced any viable solution. (It made me better appreciate the challenges faced by lawmakers in Washington today.)

It seems to me that it is a natural human tendency when thinking about problems to blame some person or group for our difficulties. While this is convenient, it does not generally lead to effective problem solving.   In this case, I am sure that you can find reasons to criticize some union behaviors, and, I would not suggest that public employees should be paid 43% more for their services. But that is surely not the whole story, and we need to force ourselves to consider multiple and even conflicting perspectives.  Let me offer an example.

In my white paper Using Crisis for Good: Driving Innovation and Change, I tell a true story of a situation where a group of mainly unionized employees rose to the occasion without any significant management involvement to completely redesign a major product line and the processes we used to build it. They were able to reduce the cost of our product by over 30% in just three days. What this experience taught me was that in the right environment and with the right information, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. This happened, partly at least, because I removed one of the main impediments from progress – our management team. It was an eye-opening experience for me. (Read the article t0 get the full story).

I was impressed by the inventiveness, creativity and ability to problem solve demonstrated by our unionized employees. It made me ask, “If we could save 30% of our costs on that product line, what other mammoth savings opportunities were there that we were not yet tapping?” When I thought about what had happened, I started to see that the main reasons why we hadn’t found savings before, was because I (and my executive group) were the main problem – not our union. After all, I was the person mainly responsible for creating:

  • the existing silos by how I chose to organize the company
  • the managers who sometimes behaved in territorial ways
  • the incentive systems that encouraged sometimes noncollaborative behaviors and misaligned priorities
  • the process design that was linear, and did not actively seek input from those downstream of our sales and engineering teams
  • the shifting priorities that created stress and pressure on some departments as new situations emerged
  • the labor costs and work rules in our contract which I had my hand in negotiating

There is more to the whole story than just these elements, but it seems to me there are always two ways to think about the mess in which you sometimes find yourself. You can define the solutions by blaming others for creating the situation. Or, you can start first by assuming YOU are mainly to blame, and since you aren’t likely to fire yourself, you can get on then with the business of doing something constructive to make things better.

Many of my managers behaved like my friend from Wall Street.  They were critical of the customers’ purchasing tactics, the aggressive actions of a competitor, high labor costs, our location in Detroit or the ineffective job done by our sales and estimating engineering group.   They all saw the root cause of our problems as stemming from something outside their basic control.

While that may be convenient, it is not helpful.  We must take ownership of our fate, focusing on those things we can influence.  All other postures lead nowhere good.

For me, this episode caused me to begin seeing my leadership in a different perspective. I saw that it wasn’t the job of managers to solve the problem, but instead to create the environment within which our employees could.  I saw that our job needed to become more about opening doors, than about finding answers.

So, while it may be easiest for us to assess blame for our problems (on our customer, our middle managers, our union labor contract, etc.) it is not healthy to start there.   Why not start first with yourself, and the things you can do to affect positive change?

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