Solve Your Problems the Experts’ Way
By Fredelle Maynard
WHEN advertising executive Claire Brown was transferred to her firm’s London office, her 14-year-old daughter, Jane, was delighted. After a few weeks in an English school, though, the girl’s enthusiasm turned to misery. Her classmates, she reported, disliked Americans. They mimicked her New York accent. Even the teacher, she felt treated her like an undesirable alien.
At first, Claire responded emotionally. “I thought of going to the school and demanding a stop to the persecution” she recalls. “I debated sending Jane to another school, or giving her speech lessons so she’d sound more English. But then I stopped to consider how I’d handle this problem at the advertising agency, and the solution came to me. When you have a good product with an apparent drawback-an effective mouthwash, say, that tastes terrible-you don’t try to conceal the liability. You exaggerate it, present it as something special-and the minus becomes a plus.”
How did this principle apply to Jane’s problem? “Well,” Claire explained, “here was an all-American kid wearing British tweeds and trying to blend in with the crowd. Naturally, it was no go. The way to interest those hostile English ids was to be as American as possible. Jane went back to her New York uniform-jeans skirt, denim jacket with rhinestone studs, a T-shirt with the picture of a frog and KISS ME in six-inch letters. The other girls were fascinated. Jane has her own crowd now, and when the kids at school call her Yan it’s not a taunt anymore. It’s a salute.”
Though most of us, in the course of living, develop a characteristic way of coping with difficulties-trial and error, careful analysis, intuition-few of us possesses a repertoire of problem-solving techniques. Yet a whole battery of such techniques-like the one Jane’s mother used-have been developed by management experts and psychologists for use in business and industry. If you become familiar with them, the next time you face a problem, whether at home or at work, the solution should be easier. Here are six of them.
Reversal. Edward de Bono, director of the Cognitive Research Trust in Cambridge, England, illustrated this technique with the problem of an ambulance which, rushing along a narrow country road, comes up behind a flock of sheep. To get the ambulance past the sheep would be slow, and might harm the sheep. So you reverse the problem and get the sheep past the ambulance: you stop the vehicle, turn the flock around and lead it back past the stationary ambulance.
The advantage of a reversal as a problem-solving technique is that it frees you from old ways of looking at a problem. A good example comes from a used-car salesman who loathed his ob because it sometimes involved unloading questionable cars on ignorant buyers. He longed to quit, but the only thing he knew was cars. So, he reversed: he set up a used-car locating-and-inspecting service. For a modest fee, he helps prospective buyers locate cars and lists the cars’ present and potential problems, along with repair estimates. His business is a success, and he is a lot happier than he was as a salesman.
Redefinition. The solution to a problem often depends on the way it is stated. If you define it narrowly (“How can I design a better mousetrap?”), you’ll find narrow, limited answers. But if you define it broadly (“How can I get rid of mice?”), you open up a whole range of possibilities. Take a family with one car and four drivers. As long as they ask, “How can we make the care available to everybody who needs it?” they’re in trouble. What they could ask is, “How can we meet our needs without using the car?” maybe Dad can join a car pool. Mom can do the food shopping just once a week. The kids can use bikes. The French Club can meet in the family hoe occasionally, instead of at school.
Planning for results. This technique, devised by the Center for constructive change in Durham, N. H .,is based on the conviction that what looks like a problem will solve itself if , instead of looking at personalities and methods, you outline expected results and work backward. A CCC answer to “How can a husband and wife agree on what to do with their income tax refund?” would not begin with his longing for a power saw, her vacation dream, or the children’s campaign for a new stereo. Instead, it would ask: “What does this family want for itself five or ten years from now? What action should be taken this week, or next month, or next year, to promote this desired outcome?”
If the family members agree, after discussion, that ultimately they want a life in which every member is free to develop and enjoy his own talents, the refund might be best used to buy a cello for a musically gifted child, or perhaps sit aside to help send Mother to college later on. Or, if the family yearns for a country place, the money might be banked toward a down payment on land. Once the goal has been defined, the problem is halfway to solution.
Breaking routines. A young woman whose husband worked at an electronics plant found her life intolerable when he was put on a 4 p. m. -to-midnight shift. She had to serve two dinners_ one at six, the other after midnight every day, and the children scarcely saw their father. Then she asked herself, “Who says the day’s main meal has to be in the evening?” She rearranged her schedule so that the whole family shared a substantial meal at breakfast time. (“People eat bacon or sausage in the morning,” she pointed out, “so why not hamburger?”) This new routine cut down on her cooking, gave the children a chance to be with their father and, incidentally, sent the whole family off well nourished for the day.
Brainstorming. With this well-known group problem-solving technique, you simply gather the family, or any other group, state the problem, and invite everyone to call out what ever ideas occur. There are four rules: 1) No criticism or evaluation is allowed during a session. Comments like “It won’t work” or “That’s ridiculous” cool enthusiasm, and lead individuals to defend rather than generate ideas possible. It’s easier to tone down than to think up-3) Emphases is on quantity, not quality. The more ideas produced, the more good ideas are likely to turn up. 4) Participants are urged to build upon or modify each other’s ideas. A seven-year-olds wacky suggestion may contain the germ of a brilliant, practical solution.
Here, for example, is what one family came up with during a ten-minute session on how to cut food costs: Give up deserts. Experiment with eggs, dried peas or beans as a meat substitute. Persuade everyone to diet or fast one day a week. Join a food co-op. plant a garden. Buy in larger quantities. Set a preserving cost limit and stick to it. Offer smaller servings.
You can even brainstorm by yourself. Write down everything that occurs to you, then put the list aside. When you pick it up again, you may find the solution to your problem.
Making a minus a plus. This is the tactic used by Jane, the young American in that English school. The heart of many problems lies in what seems to be a single, intractable element. When that’s the case, ask not, “How can I minimize this liability?” but “How can I make the most of if?”
A fruitful use of a disadvantage was made by a young woman just embarking on a career as an interior decorator. She had set her sights on a job with a prestigious firm, but everyone urged her to get experience at a small company first. No major firm. They insisted, would hire an untried new graduate. Nevertheless, the young woman applied to the firm she had singled out. Asked about her experience, she said smoothly, “None at all. But, you see, I want to learn this business with a top-quality firm. Hire me and you can train me to suit your needs I won’t have to unlearn faulty techniques acquired elsewhere.”
She got the job.