Sunday, May 27, 2018

Second-Order Solutions by Reframing the Problem

   “We are what we think.  All that we are arises with our thoughts. 
With our thoughts we make the world.” --Buddha

What is the problem frame you are always turning to?  Think about how you or your group are doing mental and emotional work on your problems.  You may not be going far enough to reexamine the problem territory or the solutions that are hiding there.  Moving beyond the first-order solution takes a thinking leap to levels above where the problem can then be transformed into something more solvable.  This means trying on other frames to open up new ways of thinking for new outcomes.

The future by reframing

This is the process that invention has followed for millennia – from the Ur-invention of fire to the space program.  It is part of the definition of culture to build on its own past – but then to depart in novel ways from that mindset to nonlinear breakthroughs that couldn’t be arrived at by moving in a straight line from the present to the future.  This is the main contribution of creativity to disrupt mainstream cultural ways of thinking to open up new fields of thought by means of innovative concepts.  However, these mind leaps don’t occur outside the culture itself, but must have a sizeable overlap with the ways and means of culture, the way life is lived and the values that drive it. 

This is why transition from idea to execution is a difficult struggle, and why so few make the journey to become part of the cultural record. 

Those that stray too far off-base fall into the category of ideas that might have worked—except that they had some feature that disqualified them from general acceptance.  An example is the Segway, which works fine on factory or post office floors, but fails the test of being an extension of the home that cars fulfill.  Rather than replacing walking, it fills a dedicated niche more as a tool than as a disruptive technology. 

Two problem types

Problems in business  or personal life alike seem to have a double nature:  Most are what we’re used to, the straight-line, incremental problem:  It’s often phrased as a need question rather than as a challenge:  We need more visitors, more profits, more trade, more leverage against competitors, more media exposure, better reputation-building or brand enhancement.  The matching solutions then become quite obvious, taking the form of higher sales and profits, better networking, which will grow reputation and market share.  Improve expansion and exposure. Increase range and opportunity, which will then circle back to “more sales.”  If only it were that simple.  Hanging out at this first level of challenge can’t be a creative response to the need to grow and prosper.  It seems obvious.  But few companies show the ability to move beyond this low-level problem statement.  The other kind is the Breakthrough, transformed problem—the second-order solution. 

On the personal level, a high-school-level question posed by a 15-year-old, it might be phrased as “I need to somehow become more popular in order to be happier.” Remember thinking this way?  Would adults think this way beyond high school?  Maybe.  First, what does “popular” mean, and how can we unpack this profitably to engender answers that can be acted on?  If it means attracting like-minded people you feel kindred bonds with, then like attracts like and this shouldn’t be a permanent problem.  Is there a communication block or gap?  That’s a different problem, isn’t it?  Or does popular denote having currency with people unlike yourself – a different challenge – which calls for approach by that point of view, not your own.  OK, that’s doable – but is that what you’re after?  Maybe you just need a single link into a group – analyze that to see who and how it can be achieved.  Or are you just less than happy for other reasons? Returning to the defining term, “popular” contains a wealth of potentials for your life that you can begin to discover immediately.  And they extend far beyond your peer group approval.  The second-order question might be reconstructed as “In what ways can I discover the breadth and greatness of my potential?”

Try another logic

These examples introduce the Breakthrough Idea, using transformation of the problem into a different equation, using a logic different from the original problem logic.  Most first-order problem statements are far from ideal:  labor-intensive: without any outcome guarantee – “on spec” solutions (If we build it, they will come – and if we build it bigger, even more will come).  But what is usually needed are high-concept, low-labor, high-return ideas that leverage existing scarce resources for limited manpower able to execute with whatever small time-spans can be spared from regular routines. 

Here are some examples of second-order problem framing: 

1.      Longitude: John Harrison was the 18th-century genius who made longitude measurable by inventing a watch that kept precise time at sea.  The three clocks he spent decades perfecting suddenly took a technology leap on the fourth.  This final iteration become The Watch for navigation to establish longitude—a centuries-old problem.  Solving that problem with Harrison’s mechanical answer suddenly increased the scope of seagoing travel and Earth exploration. This man’s motto might have been “Stop improving, start innovating.”

2.      Specialty drinks:  The original sports drink Gatorade decided to expand their business not with additional products as extensions of the brand, but to move in greater depth for serious athletes as the core clientele.  This strategy focused development in a smaller innovation footprint, saving development costs, but also managing marketing within a tighter, well-known user base. 

3.      Security: A major supermarket chain in the Northeast increased the penalty for shoplifting, with a marked reduction in in-store crime.  Rather than the first-order, straight-line solution to “improve surveillance in stores,” using creative problem-solving facilitation, they hit upon criminal trespass arrests as the second-order solution.  When this reputation quickly circulated among shoplifters, less security was actually required.*

4.      El Al:  TSA in the US could take a lesson from the Israeli air security force.  They focus on detecting terrorists, not weapons (or anything that could conceivably be construed as a weapon, like a cheese knife).  The Israelis’ record of success indicates that this problem frame works far better in prechecking passenger backgrounds, not weapons searchers.  Aren’t we trying to stop bombers, not just detect bombs?

5.      Education:  The Los Angeles Library System recently redefined library not as “a place that collects books to be read and checked out” but as a GED High-School diploma academy for many thousands who never graduated.  Locating this service within the libraries underused spaces halted county cost-cutting, because the system libraries became measureable producers of graduation numbers that city funders could claim credit for.  By looking at production, then translating to education goals, a new identity was created to preserve the traditional book value as well.

6.      Bag time:  Houston Airport had baggage delivery time lags resulting in passengers having to spend too many minutes hanging out at the carousel.  Airport management initially went for the first-order question, “How to accelerate bag delivery,” which would be the logical shortcut to a solution.  But after studying the unloading and loading-up picture, they reserved the question in an intriguing and effective way, by asking not “How can we speed up delivery,” but “How can we slow down the passengers” walking from arrival terminals.  The solution implementation involved moving terminals further out, increasing walking time to bagging six times, which then resulted in on-time delivery. 

Reframing is a powerful tool to begin to see problems in an entirely new way—one that invites for consideration a totally new set of ideas.


*Supermarkets General case from Steve Grossman,