Tuesday, 21 May 2019

You can have a fast solution, or a good solution, but you can't have both


I've found that many organisational cultures - which of course means managers and leaders - favour people who are reactive, solution focused, ready to act to solve customer problems.

This is killing innovation.

The underlying culture seems to be based on the idea that the customer is the most important person in the business, and this simply isn't true. For a start, the customer is not part of the business, they are an external connection. You don't owe them anything, and they don't owe you anything. You give them products and services, they give you money. It's a fair and equal exchange. When you start to treat that customer as if they are important, that exchange becomes unequal and unfair.

"But without customers we don't have a business!!"

Yes, you do. When you start treating customers as if they are important, you become biased towards the customers who demand attention, and since you have limited resources, your attention is no longer allocated fairly. For every individual customer who gains an advantage through discounts, concessions, better service, rushed orders etc, you actively disadvantage another customer. If you were that customer, would you be happy with a lower quality of service just because someone else was shouting louder?

If you called your internet provider to complain about slow service, how would you feel if they told you that other customers in your street were more important?

No, the most important people in a business are not customers - the most important people are the employees. You take care of the employees, the employees take care of the customers. Simple.

What has this got to do with innovation?

Believing that customers are the most important people makes managers react to customer problems. The pressure to react quickly and decisively makes managers think they know what to do, that they have 'good solutions'. A culture of firefighting emerges, because reacting to one customer neglects another, and the impact builds like a snowball.

"But we have to solve this customer problem NOW!"

No, you don't. You had to solve it weeks or months ago, but you didn't.

The pressure to act and react causes people to do what they know 'works', because it's what they did last time. You probably have a few favourite recipes, which you could whip up easily if some friends descended for dinner, and you also have some recipes for solutions for common problems at work. You know the 'best' way to get something done because you have your own experience of trial-and-error to fall back on.

When you feel under pressure to come up with a solution, you might even offer a choice - that you can either deliver a fast solution, or a good solution. But not both.

Imagine you're taking a loved one out for a very special evening. You go to a very good restaurant. Do you demand to know where your food is, two minutes after ordering? Of course not, you know that high quality food, caring preparation and tempting presentation take time. All of these things are important enough to wait for.

Now imagine you're staying out of town for work. You need to get something to eat, you don't care what, and you're in a hurry. Do you go to a fancy restaurant? Or do you go to a fast food outlet, where you can get something quickly? Do you complain that your cheeseburger isn't served on a silver platter with a fine wine?

You can fast, and you can have good, but you can't have both at the same time.

The real problem is that we cannot separate a problem from its environment. If you make the same journey to work every day, it's not the same journey. Everything around you is different, each time you follow that route. Believing that it's the 'same old same old' is an illusion that your brain creates, so that you don't have to make an effort in order to interact with the world. You might say that the differences each day are irrelevant, if you still arrive at work. Do you always arrive at exactly the same time? Do you tend to arrive early to give yourself room for delays? Do you tend to arrive on time or a little late because you don't want potential delays to eat into your well earned sleep time? So, right away, you can see that no two journeys are the same, we can only treat them as equivalent if the desired outcome is always achieved.

In organisational problem solving, we have two outcomes. One is to solve the problem, and the other is to learn. I would say that learning is actually the most important and valuable outcome, because it will largely prevent future similar problems. Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

"But we have to act NOW, we can worry about learning later!"

Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

"But!"

Without learning, you will make the same mistakes over, and over, and over again.

And one of the most important reasons for this is that by doing what works, what you know, what you have proven in the past, you are repeatedly applying the wrong solution to the problem, because you are applying a solution which worked once for you in a different situation in the past. It's the same old same old. In fact, you are continually recreating the same problems by repeatedly applying the wrong solutions. Because what you're applying isn't a solution at all - it's an idea. A solution is something which you can only know looking backwards. You can only know that your actions resolved a problem by looking backwards. As you look forwards into the next problem, any similarity is an illusion created by your lazy brain.

As a manager, you have to allow people space to find new ways, to create new ideas and to test those ideas the same way that you did - trial and error. That means making mistakes, and so the pain for you is in allowing the space for them to do that. There is no other way. And in any case, mistakes can only be defined as such when you have a specific outcome in mind, an expectation which has to be met. Let go of your expectations and you will create the space for innovation.

If, as a business, you want to keep doing the same old things, year after year, while your competitors move ahead, then keep applying the same solutions to the same problems. At least it's comfortable. But don't say that you want innovation, because that's not possible.

Innovation implicitly comes from what you're not doing.


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