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Saturday, November 7, 2009

In Search of the Obvious

It was a blinding flash of the obvious.
A project manager was talking the other day about a big problem in her organization. The business side had run out of data storage space, and adding more capacity was not in the cards. The potential workload demands posed by this problem, and the potential cost of solving it, kept it well down the IT priority list.
For the business people, though, it was very serious and pressing. They were boxed in.
But this project manager had recently come across the concept of looking for opportunity in potential project situations, as a way of broadening support among stakeholders not attracted by the idea of just solving the problem.
So, she thought, what opportunities might be lying unnoticed amid the daunting negatives she faced?
She and her associates expanded their focus beyond the problems and did some brainstorming on the opportunity side. What factors, current or possible, existing within the problem situation were untapped benefits?

Then it came: A realization that, for years, the system’s users had stored all sorts of stuff that very few people, if any, would ever need. And, even if they did need it, that wouldn’t be very often, and what they needed would be only a small part of any of the files.
Solution: The system could simply store the links to any potentially needed material, leaving it in storage at the original source. A quick and easy way to ensure ample storage capacity.
So simple. Why didn’t we think of that to start with?
There’s a reason why, and it’s also simple: We can become so accustomed to usual approaches that we’re baffled when they no longer work. When there are “unknown unknowns,” they don’t reveal themselves until you break out of controlling assumptions.
How do you do that? Well, the group needs to ask itself: “What kind of a problem are we trying to solve? What is the nature of our project? What is the essential purpose for what we’re trying to do?” That line of thinking clears away the underbrush, and allows for fresh insights arising from unexamined potential in the original situation.
In the storage case, the point was to get space – but initial thinking was too narrow. It misidentified the situation by limiting itself to a single possible solution: getting added space. The team got into this box without realizing it – so was in no position to even know what unknowns it was missing.
Once the team started looking for opportunities instead of simply wrestling with an intractable problem, they correctly understood their challenge was to find space, period. That opened the door to look for more efficient ways to use current space.

The two practices – working out a clear understanding of the nature of the situation, and brainstorming fresh ideas/concepts – should be fundamental to every project and every other problem-solving effort.

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