Have you ever been working on a problem -- a product, service, process, strategy -- and suddenly someone else comes up with the solution, one that stops you dead in your tracks, makes you slap yourself on the forehead, and ask "Why didn't I think of that?"
There may be some good reasons. Whenever I teach workshops or facilitate a problem solving team, I start with a simple 10-minute warm-up problem based on a real case, like this one, which you're welcome to try:
You own an upscale neo-luxury health club. As part of the membership perks, each of the 40 shower stalls is stocked with an bottle of very expensive, salon-only shampoo. The customers love it and rave about it. The front desk sells the bottles. Unfortunately, bottles disappear from the showers all the time. In fact, theft rate is 33 percent, presenting a costly situation. You’ve tried reminders, penalties and incentives to try and reduce theft, but nothing has worked. You want the problem solved, but there are some constraints: (1) you cannot discontinue or alter the shampoo offering in any way – one bottle of the current brand per stall must not change; (2) theft must be 100 percent eliminated; (3) you can't spend any money; and (4) no additional burden on the patron.
There are a couple of solutions, but that's not the point. The point is that nine times out of 10, the solution isn't found inside the 10 minute mark. I've watched hundreds of teams work and listened to their best ideas, and I've discovered seven thinking traps, one or more of which are usually to blame for not finding a solution with the maximum effect through minimum means.
Leaping to solutions. Shortcutting in an instinctive way or intuitive way -- i.e. the "blink" method of problem-solving -- almost never leads to an elegant solution to a complex problem, because deeper, hidden causes don't get addressed. As I watch teams work, I notice that little if any time is spent digging into the possible causes of the problem. But watch an episode of CSI or House: First they collect the evidence, then diagnose causes, and then solve. Lo and behold, it's never the obvious solution.
Blindspots. Blind spots are an umbrella term for the patterns, mindsets, biases, and assumptions that make it hard for us to think differently. Our brain does a lot of "filling in" and subconscious translating for us -- it can actually make stuff up that isn't there -- because it's a pattern maker and recognizer. It's why texting works so well: Mst ppl cn ndrstnd ths stmnt w lttl prblm.
The first two traps are interconnected. In trying to solve the shampoo problem, if you had spent more time thinking about the why theft is happening, you would have been better able to frame the problem properly without making unwarranted assumptions. Otherwise, you may have inadvertently tossed out solutions more focused on eliminating dishonesty, rather than eliminating theft. It's not an honesty issue, and you couldn't solve that anyway. It's about attractiveness and accessibility.
Once you understand that you have a clientele in which a third of the population is willing to shirk responsibility when it comes to an easily-removed and highly attractive item, the real challenge revolves around making it hard and undesirable to remove. And to do so without cost or burden on the patron. (In case you were wondering, the health club simply removed the tops of shampoo bottles. Problem solved!)
Not Invented Here (NIH). How much time do teams spend pondering why previous solutions (incentives, penalties, reminders) didn't work? Almost none. So naturally they offer up solutions that are some form of an incentive, penalty, or reminder. NIH means "If we didn't come up with it, it won't work." Next time you're waiting for an elevator, watch someone walk up and hit the already-lit button. By nature we don't trust others' solutions.
Satisficing. Ever wonder why some solutions lack inspiration, imagination, and originality? It's because we favor action and implementation over incubation and optimization. By nature we satisfice (satisfy plus suffice). Good enough is. We glom on to what's easy and obvious and stop looking for the better or optimal solution. We rarely look at a problem from all possible perspectives. I use this example often: What's the least number of "sticks" you need to move to make this Roman numeral equation correct? XI + I = X. If you answer anything but zero, you satisfice. Look at it upside down, or reflect it in a mirror.
Downgrading. This is the close cousin of satisficing, but with a twist: a formal declaration that the goal is impossible. For example, in the shampoo case, "We'll never completely eliminate theft. Maybe 60 percent, and here's our idea." It happens all the time in business! Why? So we can declare victory with an inferior solution. No one likes to fail. But trust me, no one wins a football game by aiming for the five-yard line.
Complicating. We are natural-born complicators. We love to make things more complex than they need to be, more costly than required. The most ingenious solutions nearly always come not from huge multimillion budgets, but from the guys in the garage with little or no resources. We overthink, complicate and add cost, and do it intuitively, naturally, and, unfortunately, consistently. Why? because our brains are wired to add, hoard, store, accumulate. Slack resources and buffers make us feel safe and secure. Don't believe it? Watch how many customers come out of a Costco or Sam's Club with a pack of thirty-six rolls of toilet paper.
Ideacide. As I watch teams work, I often hear the solution, but it gets shot down as the go-forward idea. One of the other traps is usually to blame: it seems too simple, or a faulty assumption prevents it from seeing the light of day. Or sometimes it's a people issue. We naturally do the "Yeh, but..." dance, in which we stifle, dismiss, and second-guess good ideas to death. It's ideacide, pure and simple. And it's not just others' ideas we kill; we kill our own because we're too critical. Then we slap ourselves on the forehead when someone else "steals" our great idea. Decca Records rejected the Beatles because "Guitar bands are on the way out." Oops.
So how do you neutralize all these thinking traps? Employ a discipline or methodology like Design Thinking.