Seeing past the problem

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By Mark Di Somma

Every transformation programme I have ever worked on has been set in motion by a problem. And in every case the issue that has galvinised action and that everyone is so focused on answering is not the real problem at all.

As Simon Sinek has observed, people intuitively deal with what they know before they deal with the things they don’t know or feel less comfortable dealing with. The easiest question, and the place most people start is “what?” They deal first with the symptoms they can see and quantify. And often they address them with a “how” that is equally familiar – the methodology they always use.

But while a particular problem may have set off the trip-wire, in reality that problem is probably a symptom of what’s really happened rather than the real cause.

It’s the prompt.

And just having a way to address that problem does not guarantee any quality of answer. It simply provides a process for everyone to map to.

Do you know the lovely story of Abraham Wald? His reasoning shows why what you think you see can be so misleading. The mathematician was called in to determine how to make bombers safer during the Second World War. Everyone agreed they needed more armour. But where? Armour is heavy. If you put it everywhere, the bombers would never get off the ground. The answer seemed obvious. Put the armour where the planes were being shot the most. So Wald went to work and sketched all the places where bombers returning from their runs were most shot up.

But then, in his analysis of the situation, Wald turned everything on its head. The areas of most apparent damage were not the problem, he concluded, because they appeared on planes that made it back. The real areas of vulnerability on a bomber were those areas that weren’t marked – because planes shot there were the ones that never made it home.

Wald’s wonderful insight was to resist the temptation to ask “what am I looking at?” and to ask instead “why can I see this?” It’s a reminder to all of us. As are the words of the philosopher Karl Popper who said, “Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”

Here’s what I got out of both men’s approaches. The next time you’re grappling with a marketing issue, don’t focus on the symptom or the approach, focus on the situation. And don’t veer towards what you understand. Set a course for what truly isn’t making sense.

More reading

The strategy of radical beauty
Crunching on cacti
The contradictions of eyelashes and data

If there’s a transformation issue I can help you with, please contact me.

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