If you can't solve a problem, changing the way you look at it can definitely help
Updated: Nov 11, 2018
The office block tenants’ committee meeting ended in deadlock once again. The tenants had reported another increase in complaints from staff and clients about excessive waiting times for the block’s lifts.
The owners reiterated that engineers had confirmed the lifts were indeed 40% slower than the industry-recommended minimum but, due to their age, nothing could be done to speed them up without compromising safety.
Furthermore, architects had said that replacing the lift-gear would involve considerable disruption due to shaft widening; and that it might be difficult to get planning permission because the iconic art deco block was a listed building.
More to the point, said the owners, if the work did go ahead they would be forced to raise rents by at least 150% to help pay for the work.
After a further spell of wailing and gnashing of teeth, everyone agreed to postpone a decision until the next meeting, many nodding assent from the doorway as they rushed for the lift lobby.
Then, a couple of weeks later, a young intern working in the building suggested to the owners that they could solve the problem by installing full length mirrors in all the lobbies.
When intrigue got the better of mirth, the owners decided to give the young woman a fair hearing. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors were installed within a week. Complaints dropped off dramatically. The ‘lift issue’ was never raised again.
So what happened here?
Basically, everyone except the intern had defined the issue as 'a lift problem', which would seem an obvious and rational thing to do. But this narrow way of framing the problem was never likely to lead to a win-win solution.
The intern took a wider view. She recognised that management had treated the problem as a purely technical one without questioning what was really behind people's complaints.
Familiar with the systems thinker's call to arms: "Don't just do something, stand there", she made several visits to watch and listen to lift lobby activity at various times of day. She noted how solo people spent their waiting time looking alternately at their feet and at the lift's floor-level indicators. She spotted how those who appeared to know each other spoke only in quiet whispers.
She also tracked a random sample of lift users to calculate an average per-trip waiting time of one minute and twenty seconds compared with an industry-recommended maximum wait of 50 seconds.
These new data put the 'lift problem' into perspective. An expensive and highly disruptive upgrade would save 30 seconds per individual trip...... "long enough to upload another selfie to Twit-face?", mused the intern.
She then presented her findings to random lift users, suggesting that waiting time was probably not the real issue. The solution, she thought, was more likely to be found in what people did while they were waiting. Most told her they did nothing. They were bored. Many felt embarrassed while standing around avoiding eye contact by looking at their feet or pretending to check their phones.
Maybe something that relieved boredom might do the trick, she thought; so she asked herself what most of us are always interested in: Ourselves, of course, and others we find attractive for whatever reason.
That's why the mirrors worked. Following their installation people behaved very differently. No more bowed heads. People were jockeying for the right mirror angle for a bit of self preening or a surreptitious peek at others. They were smiling more too.
But was the problem solved?
According to Russ Ackoff, author of the original 'lift problem' case study, the problem wasn't so much Solved as Dissolved. Committee members had concluded that lift waiting times were the cause of the complaints. They treated the problem as a purely technical one, which inevitably led them to seek purely technical solutions.
The intern demonstrated that this was a socio-technical problem, one where the interaction of human and machine produces dynamics that often camouflage the real causes of the problems we see. She took time to look, listen and ask, then she used her new-found knowledge to explore alternative causes which she then tested out with those involved.
Another take on why the committee settled quickly on 'the obvious solution' is that, like most of us, they were lazy thinkers who were too eager to find a solution. They were victims of what Daniel Kahneman calls the availability heuristic, ie: the tendency to base decisions on the most readily available and easily understood data in order to find a quick fix.
The young intern in our story applied elements of both Systems Thinking and Divergent Thinking to the problem. Both, we believe, are essential to effective leadership thinking in our VUCA world. If you would like to develop these and other key thinking skills, please CLICK HERE to discover how we might be able to help you.