Leveraging ideals to solve real problems
Here’s something I used to believe when it comes to problem solving: In any endeavor, when it comes to problem-solving realism must be applied and realism must drive the outcome. Therefore, nothing is worse than pie-in-the-sky solutions that are unattainable and unaffordable. You might even catch me saying things like “let’s not have the perfect solution become the enemy of a very reasonable and good solution.”
However, over the years I have come to a new position. Leveraging the ideal solution is not only important to solving an organization’s problems but it is essential to understanding the very nature of your problem. The leader, rather than squelching subordinates from floating ideal (and perhaps fantastic) solutions, should encourage this behavior. Once an ideal is agreed upon, that ideal can be studied and then, only then, should realism enter the picture. Ideals must enlighten realism.
The ideal: invisible soldiers that walk through walls
Picture yourself in a room full of military planners. A group of terrorists have kidnapped Americans and are holding them in an unknown building in an urban environment. To complicate matters, the Americans are being held in a hostile nation, so you will get no cooperation from locals. You are trying to solve an incredibly complex hostage situation.
Immediately the team leader starts looking for options and his team start talking logistics, intelligence, special operator teams, etc. There are a lot of ideas about what can’t be done. We won’t have time for this or those resources aren’t available, etc. It’s a very realistic conversation.
Then some guy named Jones down at the end of the table says – “what we really need is invisible soldiers who walk through walls.” Everyone stops and looks at this guy. Somebody just shakes their head and they get back to how many C-130s are we going to need?
The Boss finally says “Jones, let’s stay focused on the problem.”
The team is off and running to find a solution and Jones keeps his mouth shut. They may even find a workable solution, but Jones is disengaged because he now realizes his ideal solution was a dumb idea.
But was it a dumb idea? Not really; if you analyze an ideal solution you can learn an awful lot about what you actually need.
Analyzing the Ideal
Let’s look at Jones and his idea for invisible soldiers who walk through walls. Assuming that this is agreed upon as an ideal solution, what is it about invisible soldiers who walk through walls that make it ideal?
A quick analysis of invisible soldiers that walk through walls might yield the following principles of the ideal:
– Friendly forces move undetected by the enemy (Stealth)
– Our forces can see and hear our enemy but they can’t see and hear us (information superiority)
– We are undeterred by physical barriers such as buildings and walls (freedom of movement)
– We have thinking human actors at the point of attack (mentally agile actors)
– Invisibility limits the risk to our troops (security)
– We can avoid a large conflict (precision engagement)
You get the idea – we could make a list for hours about the benefits of invisible soldiers who walk through walls. The bigger lesson lies in the parenthetical remarks above. When you take the time to analyze an ideal solution, it will reveal to decision makers the principles that the team must strive for. Things like stealth, information superiority, security etc. These things make up the ideal solution and a leader must ensure that the real solution, even if it can’t rise to the level of the ideal, incorporates the principles of the ideal solution.
In other words, Jones said something very important at the conference table. The ideal principles are very germane to the actual answer. They must enlighten the realist’s decision-making.
A “Resourcefulness” Constrained Environment
In the Air Force today, we are constantly reminded that we are operating in a “resource constrained” environment. By resource constrained, senior leaders want us all to know that we don’t have enough equipment; we don’t have enough people; and we certainly do not have enough money to do everything that we need to or would like to do as a force. In fact, there is hardly a speech given by leaders at any level that doesn’t talks about the “resource constrained environment” we are operating in and how it is going to get worse.
I don’t disagree with any of that. We are resource constrained. However, this is not different than any other time in American history. We have always been resource constrained.
The danger in focusing on constraints is that it constrains your problem-solvers enthusiasm. It squelches your idea generators. If leaders go into a problem solving session by saying “we don’t have enough money, equipment or people but we have to do something” – they will get lousy inputs from their subordinates.
Here is something I have seen over my career in the Air Force: A junior officer says he needs X, Y, and Z in order to solve a problem. The response from senior leaders is “we don’t have any X; Y is way too expensive and I am using Z for something else. You have to understand, Junior, we are in a resource constrained environment.”
The problem goes unsolved. The junior leader (and the senior for that matter) thinks that X, Y, and Z are not “realistic” and therefore they say “forget it.” Even more damaging, the next time there is a problem – the junior leader starts his problem solving by remembering we are in a “resource constrained environment” and he doesn’t look for an ideal solution, but rather one he might be lucky enough to get some backing on. A half-measure that is funded is better than nothing at all, so knock off the dreaming, he thinks.
Equally discouraging is the fact that no one ever really analyzes the ideal of X, Y, and Z. Why analyze “invisible soldiers that walk through walls?” It will never happen.
The ultimate result is that leaders begin to create subordinates who can’t solve problems. The subordinates get better at listing constraints and limitations to solving problems then they do at actually imagining victory. The leader may as well start handing out ball caps with an upside down Nike symbol on them. He can tell the team “Just Don’t Do It” and they can all where their anti-Nike hats.
The leader has succeeded in creating the Resourcefulness Constrained Environment – which I guarantee you will be much more damaging than the resource constrained environment. Kill you team’s soul and their can-do spirit, and no amount of money can solve that.
A Way Ahead.
Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands. But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny
- Carl Schurz (address to Faneuil Hall, Boston. April 18, 1859)
Leaders, we have to get back to encouraging ideals and idealism in our subordinates. Do not constrain your subordinates with endless negative talk about what can’t be done and what will never work. It is up to you to free them to imagine things that will revolutionize what your organization is doing.
Too often junior leaders are confronted with a drumbeat of negativity and short-comings disguised as “realism.” This leads to leaders at every level who are incapable of imagining creative solutions; they are terminally negative; and they focus more on what they don’t have rather than what they need to do. They get very good at thinking in a constrained way.
Believe me I see it every day. Leaders who have been so conditioned by constraints that they are literally incapable of solving problems. They focus their attention on managing inertia rather than imagining the ideal. They will argue why they can’t do something – and they will argue that all day long.
The ideal is your friend, leaders. It is not a waste of time. It is the inspiration for organizational excellence. Will we ever have invisible soldiers, time machines, and endless supplies of energy? I don’t know.
But what I do know is that by analyzing those ideals and other ideals still unimagined, we can discern what makes them ideal. Then as leaders, subordinates, and problem-solvers, we can strive for the effects that make something ideal to begin with. That is called organizational PROGRESS.
Stop crushing it with you indignant realism.