In 1936 Union Pacific Railroad had a client problem.

They saw their customer experience problem as a need to help their mining clients more quickly and cost-effectively get consumables and lumber in and ore and coal out of the mountainous Wasatch range.

Existing railroad technology didn’t cut it, so Union Pacific turned to their long-term partner the American Locomotive Company with their big problem. ALC responded by offering a humongous solution; the 4-8-8-4 steam locomotive also known as the “Big Boy”. 

Big Boy 4-8-8-4 Courtesy of WikiCommons

The 4-8-8-4 was a monster even by large rail standards. At nearly two stories tall and 1.2 million pounds, it had 32 drive wheels to drive the monster and 16 more to guide it. It could reach sustained speeds of up to 80 mile per hour and traverse steep grades other engines could not, all the while hauling 7.2 million tons of freight in nearly two miles of laden rail cars behind it.

While the envy of every railroad line at the time, the Big Boys useful career was cut short, going out of production after 4 years. General Motors’ E-85 was a diesel-electric locomotive that marked the extinction of the Big Boy specifically and steam locomotion in general. Costing almost a third less than the Big Boy, its annual maintenance costs were a fourth, demanded less human guidance and didn’t require water operate.

But the story doesn’t end there. The advent of the United States’ interstate highway system in the early 1950s eradicated nearly all rail passenger traffic and put a significant dent in short and long-haul cargo hauling. If that didn’t put the iron horses out to pasture the emergence of the DC-10 in the early 1970s did.

Creating the National Interstate Highway System circa 1955
Courtesy: US Department of Transportation

Asking the Right Questions

Did Union Pacific make the right call in 1936? 

Probably not. They thought of themselves as a rail company, not a cargo transit company. I doubt they investigated diesel-electric options back then (even though they existed at least a decade before), let alone more far-flung solutions such as rigid airships and other emerging technologies. No, I am certain the train guys at Union Pacific talked to the train engineers at ALC who were more than excited to build them a King-Kong train. 

Union Pacific was stuck in their steam locomotive framework and rushed to a technological solution they were comfortable with, rather than what was optimal. In short, they rushed to a solution without a strategy. As Albert Einstein once said, “given one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution.” Good advice.

History is littered with companies who thought they had the right solution, only to realize they didn’t appropriately define the problem in the first place. Smith-Corona typewriters, R.I.M. Technologies’ Blackberry, Kodak’s Polaroid, and even more recently Microsoft’s “Zune” music service are all lessons in misdiagnosis and a rush to a cure.

Today, many CPG companies are struggling for relevance with consumers more interested in fresh and locally sourced foods. For example, a cereal company might think their problem statement is “how do we get more people down the cereal aisle?” while their real problem statement should be “how do we rethink breakfast?”

It’s an easy mistake to make. We feel uncomfortable in the ambivalence of uncertainty and powerful psychological forces push us to closure. We are encouraged to have a “bias for action” sometimes skipping any CX strategy in favor of action.

Furthermore, powerful social-psychological make us prefer harmony amongst the tribe; even if that is not in the best long-term survival of it. Finally, there is enormous pressure for managers to “fix it” when their organization is faced with an imminent external threat. They regularly short cut the important first step of problem definition in favor of getting to the business of solving the problem.

Tip to Stop Solving the Wrong Problem

How do we hedge against bad problem framing? Here are a few tips that can help prevent your organization from trying to solve the wrong problem.

1. Ensure Diversity in your leadership

It’s not just an altruist thing to do. Diversity is critical for innovation and not getting blindsided by too narrow view of the world. In much the same way you would not put all your investment in one stock or one industry you should hedge your intellectual worldview by making sure diversity of thought is a priority for your organization.

This does not just include racial and ethnic diversity but functional, attitudinal, and personality diversity as well. Homogeneity is the enemy of innovation, but it feels oh-so-good when everyone agrees. A study by Boston Consulting Group found that those companies with diverse senior management had almost twice the amount of innovation related revenue of those who did not. The risk of lack of diversity is bad decision making. Having yes-men and yes-women are great, but it’s sure fired way to go out of business fast…or get people killed.

Takeaway: Ensure you have functional and individual diversity in your problem-solving teams. If you feel uncomfortable than you are probably on the right track.

2. Persistent in asking ‘why?’

It seems rudimentary, but there is a dearth of asking “why do we do it that way” in organizations today. Don Hull refers to the lack of second loop learning in organizations as organizational inertia.

The way we do business creates ruts in the road that are hard to pull out off. Past success of one approach makes us double down on that approach in the future. Managers make commitments to courses of actions whose initial purpose is no longer there. Relationships get in the way of logical decision making and organizational values transform into dogma. People crave certainty and construct mechanisms to create the illusion of permanence. This is detrimental to the long-term prosperity and survival of the organization. 

Furthermore, the tools we construct to solve problems enact a certain part of reality and shape how we frame the problem in the first place, thus censuring our ability to solve it. Surgeons like to perform surgery. Cobblers like to repair shoes. Both can solve a lower back pain problem. It’s taking a step back to find out what the problem is in the first place.

Perhaps no industry has deeper ruts of “how-we-do-things” than banking. However, some progressive banks are reframing the 150-year-old canon of how retail banking works. For example, Citizens Bank is rethinking the physical layout of banks. Acknowledging customers’ growing preference for digital interactions they are creating more self-help kiosks, cross-training employees, and reducing the space the needed by 50% in retail branches

Rather than the teller-behind-the-window format used for centuries they are opening up the floor to bring bank employees and customers together by eliminating physical barriers and making it a more friendly and less austere environment. Citizens are removing traditional customer irritants such as overdraft fees for small amounts, even though they are large revenue drivers. Some banks are taking this further and eliminating these fees altogether.

Takeaway: Challenge your organization as to why things are done the way they are. Has the environment changed? Are there better ways? In essence, it is wise to stay curious.

3. View the world like a child

My 8-year-old daughter just got a fish tank. You would think I created life out of sand and water by the wonder in her eyes. “Why does the silver fish swim on the top and the Mollies swim in the middle Daddy?” she asked. No idea. I didn’t even notice that.

The wonder of a new fish tank

The wonder of a new fish tank

This is the essence of human-centered design. Experience the world as a child or a visitor in a strange new country. If you take a moment to get Seinfeldy you will notice all kinds of things. Why do people tend to spread out in elevators? Why do people cram to get on an airplane that takes off at the same time for everyone? Why is my kid so infatuated with slime?

One progressive hotelier took this human-centered design approach to heart. Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley they experience more international visitors than many other hotels. As such, things we might take for granted; such as using a key card to gain entry into a room, might be a bit novel to someone traveling from far away. Through an empathetic understanding of their customers, they decided to be proactive in educating guests on how to gain access to their room through a demonstration model of a hotel door card reader at the check-in desk. Reception can easily show new guests how it works, without even uttering one word of English to achieve that understanding.

The Hotel Door Demo
Photo by Dave Fish

This is the key to insight. Be aware. Take on the viewpoint of others and be empathetic to their needs.

One exercise I use that brings to this light is taking on the persona of your customers. Make your executives go and buy the hamburgers you sell, open a banking account, or buy one the vehicles they manufacture. Take on the persona of a teenager, a busy mom, the elderly or someone with a disability. Every time I conduct this exercise it is much more powerful than any focus group or quantitative study can provide to move your executives to action. Be your customers for a while. You will be surprised what you find out.

Takeaway: Take your executives shopping or have them use your product and service over a period of time. Assume a new persona when experiencing it.

4. Explore analogs

To properly frame a question, it is often helpful to look across industries and occupations to see how they deal with a problem. My colleague John Palumbo CEO at Big Heads refers to this as “cross pollination” and think it is a fantastic idea for getting to both the proper question frame and potential solutions. He likes to mix unlikely people to help shed light on defining the problem, before actually solving it.

For example, say you are a grocery store and have an efficiency problem at check out at peak times. You might look to how F-1 Pit Crews move so fast. You might talk with beekeepers who work with one of the most efficient organisms on earth. What would beekeepers have to say about your queuing problem?

It also helps to look across industries. How does Disney Theme Parks deal with wait time and queuing issues? How do high-end hotels and airlines? What do top-notch waiters do at 5-star restaurants?

In looking at the problem of wait time at check out the answer many larger retailers have arrived at is to simply eliminate it. Rather than just self-check-out where there is still a line, retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, and Amazon are experimenting with ways of tracking items as they enter the cart through various new in-store technologies. When complete, customers simply pay and walk out. No lines, no wait time.

We take a general problem frame and then look for analogs across as many diverse domains as possible. Within there, can lie the problem that someone has already solved for you.

Takeaway: Look for other occupations, teams, and organizations that are trying to address analogous problems. Talk to them. Find out how they are framing analogous problems and gong about solving them.

5. Be flexibly disciplined

Psychologist Karl Weick related a story of an Italian army lost in the Alps. They used a map to finally get back to camp, albeit very late. When the Captain asked the company commander what happened, the wayward Lieutenant said “well, we were lost, but this map helped us make it back to base camp”. The Captain took the map and looked it over. He was surprised to find It was a map of the Pyrenees, not the Alps. 

The point is, in a bind, any plan will do. But having a plan is having a direction. It’s having a way out. But one must be willing to re-forecast that plan as things change.

One tool I have found very helpful in getting groups aligned on a common goal is something developed by Dr. Leticia Bristos Cavagnaro and her colleagues work in design thinking. It is a simple exercise whereby you identify three things; stakeholders, their problem/need and then the insight. You describe stakeholders in the most descriptive way possible, describe problem/needs with verbs, and the insight should answer the “because” of the other two statements. This leads to a good problem statement that can serve as a true north for the workgroup and/or organization.

For example

Our problem statement might be “We need to create a way to help business people who are new their CX role quickly learn and apply CX concepts to their own organizations that have immediate an immediate and demonstrable payoff.”

Takeaway: Make a plan using the problem statement format above. Get consensus from your team before moving forward to ideation and solutions.

More Focus on Problems

Unfortunately, most academic and corporate training focuses on finding solutions rather than problems. Noted psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi once lamented “Most schools, all you learn is solving problems; then you get out in the real world, you feel lost because nobody’s telling you what to solve.” I often find the same in my teaching. If I am very specific about the problem that is to be solved most students can get it. However, if I leave the problem ill-defined, it creates a source of both angst and poor class evaluations. In my mind, this angst is natural, and we should spend much more time finding the problem…then finding the answer. But perhaps I need to study the problem a bit more to be sure.


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