Tag Archives: problems

Funny how you can come up with great solutions!

From good solutions to great solutionsJohn Cleese is considered one of the funniest people on the planet.  I don’t think I need to argue this point.  A very funny man and a core member of the acknowledged funniest group ever – Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  So you have to ask yourself “why were they so much better than their peers and predecessors?” The likes of The Goons, Morecombe & Wise, Derek & Clive, The Two Ronnies and The Goodies.

I’m not funny at all according to my children.

They do acknowledge however that I am very good at solving problems.  Whether it be technical problems, commercial problems, mechanical problems, cooking problems or general life problems.  I think I’m good at problem solving because I can look at issues using lots of different lenses.  I have spent time as a Student, Software Engineer, Soldier, Salesman, Accountant, Marketer, Entrepreneur, Chairman, Writer & Consultant.  Its easy for me to bring different perspectives to bear.   From my point of view; I can be relied on to come a with good solutions to most problems.  But sadly, they are rarely great solutions.

So this is where John Cleese comes in.

There’s a fascinating video of John Cleese on You Tube, talking about Creativity in Management.    Because its by John Cleese it’s a bit funny, but it’s not a comedy skit.  He tackles the serious subject of how to be creative on demand.  He makes a number of points, like finding the right place to be creative and being open to creativity rather than being close minded.  But at 19 minutes in, he talks about the one thing that separated him from his peers, most of whom he acknowledged were natively funnier than him!

Its taking your time.

Most people, including comedians, set aside time to solve a problem – such as creating a funny skit.  When they solve the problem, jobs done!  However, John Cleese didn’t.  He allocated time to solve a problem, perhaps 4 hours, and used all of the time.  So if the Monty Python crew arrived at a solution within the first hour, they would spend the next three hours, revising and improving or set it aside and start again from a different direction.  This means they could then compare and contrast their skits, selecting the best and sharpening them.  So rather than one skit on say “the ridiculousness of bad products” they could improve it by taking it from a car salesman skit   to the famous dead parrot skit.

What can I learn from this though?

Despite the fact that most people know me as someone who is gregarious and happy to speak to one to a thousand strangers, I’m actually quite introverted and spend the majority of my working hours alone.  This means when I solve a problem, I usually have no one to challenge me and I never spend any additional time trying to “solve it better”.

Sadly, this means I settle for good solutions, rather than great solutions, without even realising it.

I don’t challenge my assumptions, I work within them.  I don’t approach the problem from different angles.  I solve it, pat myself on the back on and move on.  For near on ten years I sold sales campaigns on a fixed project fee basis and made the client wear the risk of us not hitting agreed targets.  So “trust” became a barrier to sale with new clients.   They just wanted to pay for success, who wouldn’t?  But we couldn’t do that.  Funding projects with cashflow at the end only is difficult and the risk of bad debt becomes enormous as success fee only campaigns attracts the wrong type of clients.  Consequently nobody does it.

But then I went back and had another look.

Spending more time on a problem I had already solved, came up with an unexpected result.  I suddenly realised that the overall project fee (success based) could be unbundled from our invoicing.  How specifically we do it, I’d rather not be explicit about because it’s a competitive advantage, however by doing this:

  1. The client is happy as they are paying for successful sales outcomes only.
  2. Getting new clients to trust us is vastly easier to achieve.
  3. Its better busienss as our risk is reduced – the client proves themselves as a good debtor upfront.
  4. The cashflow for the project is provided by the client as we invoice them at each milestone.

I wish I had spent the extra time ten years ago solving this problem.  Great solutions can come easily.

So do yourself a favour, watch the John Cleese Video.  Its 37 minutes of extraordinary insight.Creativity in Management

Solutions to problems

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about experience versus wisdom and mentioned different types of solutions.  What I was really talking about was solutions from the entrepreneurs point of view.  I have found myself discussing this a bit lately, in fact last night  I had a meeting with a couple of senior members of a community who were trying to fund activity to meet their communities objectives.  What they pointed out was their people were highly passionate about their area of interest and we should be cashing in on this as the source of funding.  What I pointed out is that this passion, is not necessarily the basis of a business.  From my (entrepreneurs) point of view there are only three types of solutions.

Solutions without problems
Research organisations tend to come up with really fantastic solutions, funded by you and I, that don’t know what problem they are solving, or perhaps can’t communicate it clearly. Most solutions (without a problem) tend to be described in terms of their features, rather than their benefits.  For instance if you look at the product set of Melbourne University spin off Quantam Communications Victoria, its easy to understand what they are doing as clever, but almost impossible to understand what problem their solution solves.  Its also worthwhile remembering though that just because the problem doesn’t exist today, doesn’t mean it won’t tomorrow, or a slight tweak may help it solve a problem.  Eg Whilst looking for medical uses of wheat fungus’s, Albert Hoffman invented the drug LSD; whilst looking for refrigeration gases, Roy Plunkett invented Teflon.  The list of these kind of discoveries found accidentally whilst looking for something else is endless.

Solutions solving a problem
Charities, clubs, associations & community groups all solve problems,  some of them very serious problems.  However this doesn’t mean these are problems that people are prepared to pay for.  The large majority of Government services deal in problems that are important, but users are not prepared or able, to pay for.  Communities way wish to save a species from becoming extinct, or preserve a natural habitat, or prevent illegal immigrants, or have our streets policed. All important, but not able to survive on a user pays model.  Commercially it might be a new feature on a product, which although desirable, might not allow you to charge a premium.  But don’t forget though that these type of solutions this can be tweaked.  For instance many markets are “two sided” meaning that they satisfy more than one distinct group of customers.  Perhaps only one of these groups is prepared to pay for a product or service.  Talk back radio is a great example of this,  consumers love it but won’t pay, advertisers will though.

Solutions solving problems that people will pay real money to fix
Successful business not only solve problems but solve problems that can be quantified and that people are prepared to pay for.   The ways this can be done are legion and include reducing, costs, mitigating risks, improving quality, satisfying status or brand needs,  or simply solving a problem such as hunger.  The quickest way of figuring out whether people will pay for your solution is to uncover whether they are already paying to solve the problem in another way.  If no one is already paying to solve the problem your solution  addresses, your idea might be great but it may not be a business.

So back to my meeting of last night, my position was that unless they can find the problem the members of their community are actually prepared to pay to solve, they will have to depend on grants to get things done.

How to deal with bad stuff in real time

Couple of non-obvious things about tanks (that’s armoured vehicles, not water holding devices).

  1. Unlike the movies, the most likely people you will run into in a tank, are other people in  tanks, who don’t like you.  So you don’t have minor problems, only really bad ones.
  2. Your tanks and the bad guys tanks move very fast, so unexpected things happen really   quickly, and your plans unravel almost faster than you can think.
  3. Despite the fact that they are very noisy environments, communications in a tank are excellent, due to a very robust radio and intercom system.

By now of course you are saying, interesting but so what?

For me the extension to “so what” is “what can business learn from tanks about dealing with bad situations in real time?”

Well the army knows that bad situations are stressful and difficult to understand sometimes, so it has developed a set report that’s used by everyone to cover verbal reporting on bad things.  Its called a Contact Report (because its about being in contact with the enemy!).  In a set sequence you let everyone know what’s happening:  including the exact time of the problem, the location, what the problem is and what you are doing about it. Eg.  “Contact, at 12:00  hours, At grid 123 456, Contacted 3 enemy T72 tanks, Engaged and destroyed, Over

There’s a number of advantages of this.

  • People further up the line get all the necessary information required to plug into their big picture model
  • They also have then enough information to decide whether they should intervene or let you resolve things yourself.
  • If there is corruption of the message, anybody in the communications chain knows exactly which bits are missing.

Of course though there is a fair bit of information to relay, which wouldn’t be much fun if you are really in the poo. Consequently there is a short form of this which just covers the bad thing eg.   “Contact, T72 tanks, Wait Out”.  The person receiving the message writes down the time because he knows that its happening right now.  When you send in the full contact report later – it can then be appended to the message from you with the same time.  This short form of the Contact Report is useful because you are letting everyone know that you have a problem.  Everyone then clears the airwaves because you have priority and if they don’t hear from you again they know why, and have a rough idea of where you were.  In theory help is already on its way.

But back to the business lessons.  I love the cross pollination of ideas from one industry to another and this is how the defence industry deals with real time issues.  Communication with clarity.

In my case I have had system operators (people running big computers)  working at banks around the clock.  And on occasion bad things happened.  But in every case the operators were trained to give a quick verbal report that a problem had occurred, before writing up their full notes later.  We were never, ever surprised by a client ringing up to find out “what the hell is going on?”.  We always looked like we were in control.

I think its a nice little lesson for businesses that want to keep on top their operations, courtesy of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps.