“It was a perfect day. I was going about my business like yesterday and the day before. It was great. I did not run into any problems. Everyone was supportive and happy. They told me “excellent, great job, we will just take this away, and you will be on your way in no time.” As I said, it was done precisely in the same fashion all my life and frankly, I was shocked when suddenly things changed. I have no idea why. One day everyone is pleased and compliments me on my achievements, and the next day, there are sombre faces and no congratulations at all. It was not my fault. Absolutely not. I was not in control of those things. I rely on them to put it on, and this time, they did not. How was I supposed to know?
Later, they brought up some words that I did not fully comprehend, like responsibility, training and awareness. And the worst thing – they kept pointing at my favourite spot. The sunny spot where patterns of that colourful carpet connect in such beautiful, elaborate, and hard to follow paths. I could spend hours running my fingers through the twists and turns. And you know, after a while, it was usually that time. You know what I am talking about. That zen-like moment then everything stands still. For a few seconds, you are suspended in the air. So gratifying!
I never wanted this to be obvious. After all, it was my moment, and yet, they usually knew. I wonder how. Was it the look on my face? Anyhow, it was supposed to be perfect, but it wasn’t. Fine. I admit it was different. Even very different, but to make such a fuss about it? Honestly, what’s the big deal. Afterwards, they started to call it a problem. Problem? And who should solve it? Me? I don’t think so. I have more important things to do. To begin, I need to find my next favourite spot. By the way, what happened to the carpet? Where is it?”
I hope, to some readers, the first paragraph will sound familiar. There are literary hundreds of books, reports, brochures and blogs on the subject of toilet training. Let’s leave our little person alone and focus on solving this problem, or more precisely on Problem Solving, which is, in my opinion, a critical skill.
Toilet training is more about unlearning than learning. Our brains are wired in such a way that once we find a solution to something, it becomes encoded, and we don’t have to worry about it. Toilet training is a perfect example. A sudden lack of the safety net—ok, it’s more than a net—puts our little person on edge. What was right is wrong, and it is tough to explain. I will not dive into proposed strategies that range from cheerios and aim-practicing (which may come handy in the coming years once they start playing CS: GO) to using stop-watch, or rewards and almost Freudian-like dissection of the process. Whatever. The simple fact remains that it is about unlearning, which brings us to problem-solving in general.
To solve something, you need to understand it. I mean really appreciate it. Take it apart. Put it back and take it apart again. Design Thinking may help. Among our team, we often disagree on definitions of skills. Steven’s articles on critical skills are quite different from mine. We are constantly asking “Is this a skill, is it a process, or is it a behaviour?” There is a tendency now—and a good one for that matter—to use a collaborative process. A brainstorm meeting. Those are great, but similarly, as the unlearning goes, a facilitator may start the session with a series of loose-them-up exercises. All aimed at the idea that when you are relaxed, you may see things differently. Problem-solving requires finding new approaches. Why new? Because most of the problems that we experience have already been solved. Many times.
Ability to handle Ambiguity is essential. For instance, in design, you always want all your “actors” to be present, but what if you don’t know who plays the central part? What if there are existing parts and missing parts on the matrix. There is no hero image, or the lead copy is missing. It is hard to tell the story without the key components. Creative Thinking may help. Active Listening and the ability to explain Reasoning are among other critical skills related to problem-solving. So, is it a skill or several skills packed together?
Here is another example. Imagine a large pile of documents, some seven thousand of them written in a few languages. Let’s say, they represent an old structure. There is another pile, a smaller one, just nine hundred and fifty documents. Those represent a new structure. How to map seven thousand to nine hundred fifty? There will be some duplications, some consolidations, and some will simply need to be removed. It can be done manually, but it will take a long time. Can it be automated? And to what degree? It is a problem to be solved. How should we approach it? Clearly, there is a need for Strategy (another skill). Then, based on a small sample, we test it and see if it works. If not, to find an alternative, the cycle starts again. We also need to look at the edge cases. Find patterns in the small sample. And above all, record the process, so next time it will be well documented. At this point, we will have knowledge captured in those notes. Knowledge and skills form experiences. More experiences, the better.
Sometimes we need an innovative solution. Something that will disrupt the old processes, but quite often, no disruption is necessary. Changing perspective will be enough. That is why we see a lot of interest in the cross-disciplinary approach. People from different backgrounds with complementary skills offer an alternative look and help to solve a problem. Like toilet training, which is a problem as old as it gets, and yet so new to every parent. You change perspective, and suddenly it is not about learning but forgetting what was learned, and with this in mind, it really takes no time to master, and certainly no need to look for a new carpet. Trust me.
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