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String Theory — Solving Difficult Problems More Quickly

You've probably told people that finding problems is a good thing. Problems indicate that you're making progress. And you also know that solving problems quickly is just as good.

I'm going to assume that you don't need advice on how to make problems. This article is about a practical method to solve your problems more quickly. It may sound odd to you, but I'm going to ask you to pull your own strings here.

An Example: Starting with A Knotty Problem
A few years ago we were involved in a messy competitive sales situation. We were bidding to provide consulting services to a telephone company in the Eastern United States. This company (we'll call it Telco) was trying to figure out how to reduce the cost of operations by $100 million dollars within 6 months. That was to pave the way to acquire another phone company by the end of the year. The mandate to cut that cost was coming from government regulators, and the Telco executive team was serious about making all of this happen.

Telco asked for bids from several consulting firms including mine. The specifications were very loose, the project ill defined, and the procurement process had become a complete mess for Telco. They had multiple bids, all so different that the offers couldn't be compared to each other. It was beginning to appear that it would take most of the year just to choose the consulting firm.

Choosing the Right End of the String
Now to the string. Next time you are in a grocery store look for a bag of flour or grain that is sewn closed by one of those strings that you tug to open the bag.

You've seen this. When you pull on one end of the string that secures the bag, the knots get tighter and the string gets more intractable. You're pulling on the wrong end of the string.

However, when you go to the other end of the string, you can open the bag with one easy pull. Solving that problem is much quicker and easier when you start at the right end.

This isn't just for bags of flour or grain. The metaphor applies to problems like the one at Telco and perhaps in your own business. (This metaphor comes from Walter Method Messages by Florence Stranahan.)

The String at Telco
All of us, vendors and the Telco team, were clearly pulling on the wrong end of the string. How could we tell? When we pulled harder, the problem just got knottier. We consultants were proposing apples and oranges by trying to define the project to match our own strengths. The purchasing and evaluating teams at Telco could not untangle a way to move forward. The team at Telco was getting frustrated.

So was I. I wanted to get on the right end of the string, hand it to the client, and have them pull it. At that point I was willing to lose the contract if it was best for getting the Telco merger accomplished. The senior Telco executive who owned this project told me that she was feeling just as frustrated. So on a Friday afternoon I called and made a radical suggestion. She agreed to it in about a minute.

On Monday I had Jan, the most aggressively independent and neutral facilitator I knew, in a conference room at Telco. Jan's travel and visit were on my nickel, but both she and I were clear that she did not care who paid her. Her job was to find the right end of the string no matter who won the contract. She was hired to advocate for Telco.

Jan had only one directive: To interview the top 12 Telco leaders and find the one string that was best for Telco's business. Not best for a vendor, best in the view of the Telco leaders. It didn't matter if that string favored a vendor, all that mattered was that Telco could look at the interview results and know that these were the right success criteria for starting and finishing the project.

You could argue that Telco should have already done this, and you'd be right. And you know that large organizations sometimes just can't seem to get to that. I was hiring Jan to help them do something that otherwise wasn't going to get done.

If you are leading a team like this, or facing a knotty problem like this, you are not alone. The solution is not in pulling the string harder and more heroically. The answer is in finding the right end of the string.

Finding the Right End of the String
Jan started on Monday and by Friday of that week she had interviewed all 12 key leaders in person and had the 11 of them in the conference room with the sponsoring executive and I. Jan asked the Telco team to look at the various success criteria she pulled from the interviews. She put all the relevant criteria on a whiteboard. (This is a process that my firm uses often.) She asked the team to select the success criteria that were right for Telco, not for the vendors. She then stood back and let them argue about which one or ones were right for them.

Jan was telling the team to find the correct end of the string. In the prior 9 months they hadn't done this. Now it was time, and in two hours, they chose three criteria on which they all agreed.

This wasn't fast or pretty, but Jan facilitated a conversation that helped the Telco team define a scope and plan that was the best for where they were. I took notes for the group, but the Telco team did all the work.

Did It Work?
Yes, but what worked here? The correct end of string was defined by the customer needs, not anyone else' ideas. It seemed like a flash of the blindingly obvious. This was the right end of the string for this project.

The senior executive took my notes to her office, read them, and immediately directed (not asked) Jan to start work on making the plan happen. Since Jan worked for me, the competitive bidding was over. The project started that night and we all worked through the weekend and the rest of the month. In effect, the bidding nightmare ended the moment the team chose the right end of the string to pull.

In 6 months Telco satisfied the regulators. Three months later they bought the other company. Pulling the string from that end, the customer's definition of success, was what worked.

You could read this as a victory for my firm, and we were happy to do the work. However the real victory was for Telco. They made the choice to stop pulling on the wrong end and to go find the right end of the string. What was the right end? It was choosing the success criteria for their own business irrespective of the tangential issues. Once they agreed on the criteria that helped Telco position for buying the other company, the answers were as simple as opening that bag of flour. The right end of the string was clear once they stopped straining on the wrong end.

The Winning Strategy
What is the strategy you might take away from this? Start with this idea: - If the problem that you are trying to solve seems complicated, knotty, and unclear, you are pulling on the wrong end of the string.

If you want to find the right end: - Write down your success criteria and then eliminate everything else. You'll find the right end of the string right in front of you.

Is it a flash of the blindingly obvious? Good.

Next: Heroism is fun, but don't you want to prevent it instead?




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