You can focus on the problems you have. Or you can focus on the solutions. As big ideas go, they don’t get much simpler than solution focus. It’s simply a binary choice to focus on the future, rather than the past.
Solution focus has its origins in Solution Focused Brief Therapy. But therapy isn’t what we specialize in here at Management Pocketbooks. So, instead, we’ll turn our attention to what managers can learn from the ideas, and put to use in solution-focused problem solving and coaching.
How do some products achieve astonishing quality and functionality at affordable prices? The answer is in the discipline of Value Engineering.
Value Engineering is often tarred with the same brush as ‘cost-cutting‘. Although it has a similar role, it plays to a wholly different business strategy. So, let’s look at what it is and why it matters.
Systems thinking is a big idea that’s remarkably… simple.
It’s a simple idea about complex phenomena. And the principle virtue of systems thinking is that it reminds us that the real world is far from simple.
Indeed, when we try to apply simple solutions to complex problems, the solution tends to fail: often spectacularly. And it’s systems thinking that points us in the right direction. We need to think about the whole messy, complex, inter-connected system, if we are to have any chance of finding a solution that makes our problem better.
Creativity is all about having brilliant new ideas.
Go on… Have one now.
Creative ideas don’t just come to us when we want them. The whole process is mysterious, and cannot be called up on demand. Or can it?
Yes, it can. Or so said William Gordon and George Prince. If you know how to, you can find creative solutions when you need them. And their research into the creative process led them to a methodology still used today: Synectics.
William (Bill) Gordon was born in 1919.He attended the University of Pennsylvania, but it is not clear whether he graduated. Between 1950 and 1960, Gordon led the Invention Design Group at consulting firm Arthur D Little & Co. He was, himself, a prolific inventor, with numerous patents to his name.
Synectics had its origins just after the Second World War. Gordon started studying how individuals and groups act creatively. This became more intensive and systematic, leading to him forming the Invention Design Group within Arthur D Little. There, he helped set up synectics groups within several client companies.
It was while leading this team, that Gordon met future Synectics co-founder, George Prince. With two further colleagues, they left Arthur D Little in 1960 to found Synectics Inc. There they pursued further research, developing and selling their model for how to run a creative process.
However, Gordon did not remain at Synectics Inc for long. He left to found Synectics Education Systems, to promote problem‑solving and education based on the use of metaphor.
Gordon died in 2003.
George Prince was born in 1918 and grew up in New York State. He attended college at Phillips Exeter Academy and Williams College, graduating in Geology. The second World War saw him serving as a junior officer in the US Navy, in the North Atlantic.
Upon his return, Prince joined an advertising company in Rochester, where he rose to VP. He then learned of the work of Arthur D Little’s Invention Design Group, led by William Gordon. He joined the Arthur D Little company in the 1950s to be a part of that group.
In 1960, he, Gordon and two other colleagues left Arthur D Little to found Synectics Inc (now Synecticsworld). This company researched, developed and promoted their creative problem-solving methodology, Synectics.
Prince remained with the company for most of his, life, as Chairman. In 1970, he wrote ‘The Practice of Creativity‘, which remains in print. He died in 2009.
Synectics is a rich methodology for solving problems creatively. However, the principles are easy to grasp:
look for alien concepts and things that seem irrelevant, and join them together.
Embrace emotions over intellect, and the irrational over the rational.
In applying these principles, Gordon and Prince assumed that the creative process can be described and then taught to others. They also believed that their process, Synectics, will apply widely to different domains of endeavour and can be used by groups and individuals.
They start with a cycling between the ‘operational world’ of routines and procedures, and the ‘innovation world’ of speculation and experimentation. New solutions become more available as we move out of the reality of the operational world, and increasingly embrace fantasy, metaphor, and absurdity.
The process they articulate is at its simplest:
Articulate the task.
Explore options, generating radical ideas that they called ‘Springboards’.
Select the best idea. Synectics presumes a preference for newness over feasibility at this stage.
Develop that idea, and how it might work in practice.
Two ideas stick with me from my learning about Synectics many years ago
The first one is the use of ‘How to…’
I love the way Synectics reframes every problem as ‘how to…’ I like it because it presupposes a solution exists and therefor the problem becomes finding it.
And once a selected idea emerges, the emphasis becomes intensely practical. We work on ‘how to make it work’. We constantly articulate the challenges and problems of implementation as ‘how to…’ Each time we solve this, we can modify the trial solution until, with no further issues, we have a possible solution, worthy of putting to the test in the real world.
The second is ‘In and Out Thinking’
Often, when we are in a meeting particularly a long one that is trying to solve a problem, our minds wander. We have ideas and thoughts that come from ‘inside’, as well as from the meeting: ‘outside’.
We can make best use of these by dividing our notebook page in two – I like to draw a vertical line. On one side, make notes about what you hear or see in the meeting – the Outside thinking. On the other, note down ideas that come from your own thoughts – the Inside thinking. Often these will be connections or distinctions, but sometimes they are seemingly random thoughts. Seemingly, because they are almost certainly triggered by something, but to you, they seem irrelevant, because you are not aware of the link.
Among many types of model of leadership is one that is particularly useful to practical day-to-day managers: situational leadership. And by far the best version of this idea was developed by two UCLA professors, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt. Their 1958 article (reprinted in 1973) is one of the most reprinted from Harvard Business Review.
Robert Tannenbaum was born in 1916, in Colorado. He studied at The University of Chicago, gaining an AB in Business Administration in 1937, and his MBA in 1938. The following year, he started his PhD in Industrial Relations also at Chicago, but his studies were interrupted by the war.
After serving as a Lieutenant in the US Navy, he returned to his PhD, which he defended in 1948. From there, he went to teach at the UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he remained until his retirement in 1977.
Warren H Schmidt
Warren Schmidt was born in 1920, in Detroit, and took a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism at Wayne State University. He then became ordained as a Lutheran minister.
He changed direction again, and after gaining his PhD in Psychology at Washington University, he went to teach at the University of Southern California and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he met Tannenbaum.
By the by, Schmidt is the first of our Management Thinkers and Doers who has won an Oscar. In 1969, he wrote an Op Ed piece for the LA times, titled ‘Is it Always Right to be Right’. This was well received and turned into a short animated movie, narrated by Orson Welles. It won the Academy Award for Best Short Animated Film in 1970.
The Leadership Behaviours Continuum
In what is regarded as a classic 1958 Harvard Business Review article, ‘How to Choose a Leadership Pattern‘, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H Schmidt set out a range of leadership behaviours. They set out seven distinct stages on a continuum, which vary from telling team members their decision, through selling their idea and consulting on the problem, to handing over decision-making.
Equally valuable is their assessment of how a manager can decide how to lead and choose which of the styles will work best. They argue you must consider three forces:
Forces in the manager Your values and style, and your assessment of the risk
Forces in the team-members Your assessment of their readiness and enthusiasm to assume responsibility
Forces in the situation Time pressure, the group’s effectiveness, organisational culture
This article is a foundation for what is now known as ‘Situational Leadership’, and the two trademarked models developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard.
The Seven Leadership Behaviours
1. Manager makes the decision and announces it
This is a purely authoritarian style of leadership, with no consideration given to other points of view. Most appropriate in a crisis, the manager sets clear instructions and expectations.
2. Manager ‘sells’ their decision
The manager takes the role of decision-maker but advocates their decision, appealing to benefits to the group. Valuable when you need the group’s support.
3. Manager presents their decision and invites questions
The manager is still in control, but allows the group to explore the ideas to better understand the decision. The manager answers to their team, without committing to honour their opinions.
4. Manager presents a tentative decision, subject to change
Now the group’s opinions can count. The manager identifies and resolves the problem, but consults their team before making their own decision.
5. Manager presents the problem, gets suggestions and then makes a decision
Still the manager retains ultimate decision-making authority. But now, they share responsibility for finding the solution with the group, who can influence the final decision.
6. Manager defines the limits within which the group makes the decision
Now decision-making sits with the team. The manager defines the problem and sets boundaries within which the group can operate, which may constrain the final decision.
7. Manager allows group to make decision, subject to organisational constraints
The group has as much freedom as the manager is able to grant them. The manager may help the group and again, commits to respect the decision the group arrives at.
Arguably, it is how Nonaka and Takeuchi took some of their thinking forward that has led to a far bigger transformation. In 1985, they co-wrote an article for the January 1986 edition of Harvard Business Review. Called ‘The New New Product Development Game’, this article was instrumental in revolutionising the discipline of Project Management.
Takeuchi and Nonaka gave us a new way of thinking about how to develop products and deliver projects. And they coined an evocative sporting metaphor for their process, which has stuck: Scrum.
Born in 1935, Ikujiro Nonaka gained a BS in political science at Waseda University, then started work at Fuji Electric, where he created their management programme. Nonaka left Fuji in 1967, to study at the University of California, Berkeley. He was awarded his MBA in 1968, and his PhD in Business Administration, in 1972. He took posts at US universities, before returning to Japan, as a professor at the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, Hitotsubashi University.
Born in 1946, Hirotaka Takeuchi got his BA from the International Christian University, Tokyo. After a short spell working at McCann-Erickson, he went to the University of California, Berkeley, where he got his MBA in 1971, and his PhD in 1977. During his time at Berkeley, he also worked summers for McKinsey & Company in Tokyo and, more important, met Nonaka.
Takeushi took a lectureship at Harvard in 1976 until 1983, when he joined Hitotsubashi University School of Commerce, where he became a full professor and Dean of the Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy. He stayed until 2010, when he returned to Harvard, as Professor of Management Practice, where he is now.
The New New Product Development Game.
In January 1986, Harvard Business Review published ‘The New New Product Development Game‘ by Takeuchi and Nonaka. This was about a new way to do New Product Development, or NPD. They drew on the idea of ‘ba’ – a Japanese coinage of Nonaka’s, meaning a meeting place for minds and the energy that draws out knowledge and creates new ideas.
They also took a look at the Toyota idea of teams coming together to solve problems. They introduced a sporting metaphor from the game of Rugby; that of the scrum. They used scrum to denote the way teams work together intensively when the ball goes out of play. In a work environment that demands creativity and innovative problem solving, this is just what is needed.
The model they created for Scrum Teams is of a cross functional group that can work autonomously to resolve its own problems. Their organisation is ’emergent’ meaning there is no assigned leadership or structure; it just emerges from the effective collaboration of its members.
To work best, a Scrum Team needs to be co-located, and work together full-time. This allows a high level of cross-fertilisation of ideas, and a dedication to working on their shared problems, tasks, and initiatives.
Scrum as an Agile Project Management Methodology
Agile project management seeks to avoid the all-or-nothing approach to projects that used to characterise traditional approaches – especially when done in a way that slavishly follows a set of ‘rules’. Although good project managers have always incorporated a lot of plan-do-review (the Deming Cycle), the growth of software development projects demanded an increase focus on agility and incrementalism.
In Scrum projects, a Product Owner is responsible for detailing the business requirements and ensuring that the business gets a good return on its product development investment (RoI). The Scrum Team, led by a Scrum Master, selects one subset of functionality from a product backlog of undeveloped functions, divides it into tasks, and works intensively on developing the outputs for a fixed time, known as a Sprint, which is usually 30 days.
Each day, the team gets together for a daily Scrum Meeting to share learning, report progress, discuss challenges, and solve problems. At the end of the sprint, the team should produce a working product that is stable and useful. After a reflection and learning process, the team then works with the product owner to define the subset of functionality it will work on in the next sprint.
The team continues like this until the Product Owner concludes that the next sprint would not create enough additional value to justify the incremental cost.