How many of you use some form of a Lean Six-Sigma process in
your organizations to problem-solve, reengineer processes, and make
How many of you use some form of a human-centered design or
user-first design process in your organizations to innovate?
How many of you have a strategy formulation process to set
direction, analyze trends, uncover market forces, and identify emerging
Each methodology represents a useful approach to finding opportunities and solving problems. At the same time, each methodology conceals two underlying and debilitating assumptions. First, we assume that reengineering, innovating, and strategizing are distinct processes. Secondly, we assume that each process can be scheduled and undertaken periodically.
Sometimes reengineered improvements arise from the application of design thinking. Sometimes a design thinking exercise will surface an opportunity that has the potential to influence strategy. Sometimes a strategy formulation exercise feels divorced from the realities of what it will take to reengineer the systems required to bring the strategy to life. An agile organization must access a variety of tools so it can respond and adapt while it invents and plans.
Perhaps there was a time when it made sense to employ
process reengineering, innovation, and strategy exercises on special occasions.
We no longer have the luxury to pick and choose a time to think about how to
make things better or plan for the future. Isolating time spent figuring things
out from time spent getting things done only works when conditions are stable.
Otherwise, by the time you have things figured out and you’re able to
operationalize your conclusions, the assumptions on which you based your
thinking may no longer pertain. An agile organization treats problem-solving
and opportunity identification as a management routine.
The Unstuck Minds
A heuristic is a simple method or procedure that allows for
self-discovery, exploration or problem-solving in order to improve performance.
For example, if you have a method for fitting suitcases into the trunk of a car
(e.g. put the largest cases in first), you’re applying a heuristic. I remember
explaining to my daughters that I estimate a 20% tip at restaurants by moving
the decimal one place to the left and then doubling the number to the left of
the decimal. Once you have a heuristic that works, you can share it with
others; heuristics are rules-of-thumb that create learning and performance shortcuts.
If you accept the premise that an agile organization needs
leaders who can reengineer, innovate, and strategize on a routine basis, you’ll
need to provide your leaders with a powerful heuristic. Leaders will need
something memorable and useful that doesn’t require the intervention of an
Four Questions to ask
when you’re Stuck for an Answer
Consider asking the following four questions anytime you
sense a loss of momentum, the return of a familiar problem, or an opportunity
just out of reach:
1) What’s changing?
Zoom out like a strategist to notice what is happening in
the environment. What is your competition doing differently, what political or
economic policies might shift that could influence your organization or your
customers? What emerging technology could undermine your organization’s value
Think about what is becoming more important and less important.
Think about what is becoming more available and less available. Think about
what is becoming more popular and less popular.
2) What’s keeping
things the same?
Zoom in like a systems thinker to notice the
interconnections that define the status quo. Ask yourself about existing
systems and processes that may have turned counterproductive. Look into the
ways people are rewarded, recognized, incentivized and punished. Ask about what
has become comfortable to do that no longer adds value.
Play out the consequences for people of maintaining the
status quo versus altering the status quo. What do the habits and routines
suggest about the organization’s priorities?
3) Who needs what?
Apply the curiosity and empathy of a design thinker to
discover the needs, wants, worries, and priorities of the people who will adopt
any solution that gets developed. Instead of creating carrots and sticks so
people will comply with a solution developed by a few leaders, find a solution
that makes it easier for people to apply their passions and aspirations. Trust
that when you make it easy for a lot of the right people to get what they need,
insights and options will emerge.
Once you accept that new ideas will surface by focusing on
what people need, choose the individual or group to put at the center of your
efforts. Once you select the people to focus on, take time to understand and
empathize with their desires and motivations. When you shift your
problem-solving priority from arranging the world to work for you to helping
people you care about get what they need, you’ll be ready to define your
4) How will we define
Once you define your challenge as an open-ended question about how to make the world work better for people you care about, you will immediately see new and interesting options. As I’ve written in a previous blog post, there’s a big difference between the solution set for the challenge: How do I get my teenage daughter to keep her bathroom clean? And the solution set for the challenge: How do we reduce the amount of nagging at home?
When you’ve defined your challenge and identified solutions, you can use the work you did in steps one and two to evaluate which solutions will work best. Prioritize solutions that take into account what is changing and counteract what is keeping things the same.