An Experiment in Problem Definition

I'm involved in introducing a process for innovation at the organisation I work in (Irwell Valley Housing), and as by way of introduction to my colleagues I wanted to highlight how important problem definition is. So, I decided to carry out an experiment.

I gathered participants from across the office with the plea of ‘will you help me try something’ I think I did promise it would be fun to those sitting on the fence and dropped in quietly, once they’d already agreed, that I was going to film it!

I placed a table central to the room with bright arts and craft material and a post it note with the instruction ‘Make the tallest thing you can in 5 minutes’…here’s what happened:

What did I learn?

This quick experiment highlights why understanding the problem you are trying to solve is vitally important in achieving an outcome that actually solves the problem!. My instruction was purposely broad and open to interpretation — as you can see in the video ‘tall’ was interpreted as both high and long, some people built a structure that stood up on its own, others used things already in the room and others laid their idea on the floor.

No one approach was wrong but it highlights that if you want an outcome to solve a problem you first need to understand what the problem you’re trying to solve is. Imagine a real example, if I needed the ‘tall thing’ so I could rest my camera on it to take pictures up high — most of the things made would have been useless for this task. Breaking down each word in the problem and asking why questions could get us closer to a solution that would work — What does tall mean? What do you mean by make? What is a thing? Why does it need to be tall? Why do we need to make it?

The experiment also made me think about the context we work in and the unconscious bias we have as humans:

• The context of the being in the office and having a table set up with materials meant that everyone went straight for the table. I didn't instruct that participants were to use the materials on the table, but everyone automatically did. If I hadn't set the table up or I had taken participants to a place outside of the office it would have been interesting to see the different approaches.

• I probably directly influenced the behaviour of participants by interviewing them on what innovation meant to them immediately before asking them to carry out the task. One participant mentioned they felt under pressure as they were thinking about the most innovative thing they could build. This could have been the thing that influenced the use of the brightly coloured materials…although this might have happened anyway — who doesn't love a balloon and piece of animal print paper?!

• I didn't set any rules yet more than one person said ‘I don’t want to break the rules’. We've been conditioned from a young age to follow rules. Anyone who has played Pictionary with my Great Aunty Edna knows there is a place where rules are important, but imagine if we had a space where we didn't have any rules and we accepted that not everything will go to plan we might just get something a bit different.

• Time is subjective — some people felt 5 minutes was a long time, others ran out of time and wanted longer and acted as if they were under pressure from the beginning. I suspect this could be down to factors such as a deadline waiting back at their desk making people take more notice of the time. When planning projects giving reasonable time-scales, and understanding the different contexts people are working in is an important factor in the results you get.

Changing the context, taking away rules and giving people the space to try something different are all key to getting people to think differently. As the Henry Ford quote goes “If you always do what you've always done, you’ll always get what you've always got.”

As a final point, I also think my experiment supports a case for allowing colleagues to take time to play and experiment more at work. This took a few hours of my time and 15 minutes of out of the participant’s day and the response to the filming has created a really good buzz across the organisation. I've already had people talking to me about how they would approach the task in a different way and people discussing some of the thoughts I’d observed. I've also already had some good ideas which could be put through an innovation process.

I’ll be sharing more on our journey to Innovation as we progress — but I’d love to hear about others approach to innovation if you’re willing to share!

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