By: Dr. Min Basadur
Here is one of the seminal stories from my days at Procter & Gamble (P&G) that illustrate how we are so quick to jump to solutions when solving problems. One of our competitors introduced a new product called “Irish Spring.” This was a very new product and revolutionary – it had stripes - green and white swirly stripes. No one had made a green striped product before. The stripes were very interesting - on television they would show a man with a knife cutting through the bar so you could see the white stripes. Then they showed a guy in a Irish meadow taking a shower outdoors with refreshment all around him, everything green, warm weather, fresh dew on the grass, a mountain stream, blue sky with white clouds over head. The idea was that if you use this bar in the morning you too would feel more refreshed. Irish Spring sales took off like a rocket - P&G was caught flat-footed.
The company decided to put a group of people together on a product development team to work on an answer to Irish Spring. Roughly six months later, I still remember the phone call I received from the leader of the team. He said, “We’re in real trouble, we’re trying so hard, we’ve tried making better green striped bars –every month we’ve made one – we go up against “Irish Spring,” and the best we can do is equal them, we can’t beat them. And you know, in our company there’s a rule, you can’t just go and say we’re equal to the other people. You’ve got to show that you’re better or they won’t let you go to market until you can show that you can win a blind test with customers showing that they prefer your bar versus theirs. So the team was becoming demoralized – they’d been trying very hard and decided they needed to have a creative session.
Well here’s what we did - we had a creative session. In the morning we spent time on: “Are we working on the right thing – the problem definition step.” We started off recapping what had been happening – how might we make a better green striped bar? My role as the leader/facilitator was to say, “Why might we want to make a better green striped bar?” A group member replied: “We’ve lost market share,” which led to: “How might we regain market share.” You can easily see there are more options to regaining market share than how might we make a better green striped bar. Again I replied: that’s good, let’s diverge again and say, “Why else might we want to make a better green striped bar?” The group had trouble answering this question. I was trying to help as best I could and I thought, you know, maybe I can help the group think by pretending we’re somebody else – projecting ourselves as a user of these soap bars. So I said, “Lets ask the question again, from a user’s standpoint, “Why might we want to make a better green striped bar? From this vantage point, a team member said, “We’d like to make people feel more refreshed.” This then led to: “How might we make a more refreshing bar?”
Now we went on and on and the map got bigger and bigger but this new how might we statement broke the logjam, finally getting the team out of the box. The group said, “Aha-ha. We really like that one,” and they chose it. Now if I asked you, “How does it compare to the one below?” Everybody said, “Well, it’s got a lot more options and it doesn’t have to be green stripes.” But the one that has the most options is the one at the top, “How might we regain market share?” But the group said, “that has too many options – we think there’s a really good market in refreshment. That’s the one we want to go with.” That was the major Aha-ha – getting out of the box!
What happened next is we went into step 4 - ideas or solutions and we began to generate ideas in the afternoon. In two or three hours we generated over 200 ideas on how we might provide more refreshment in a bar. When we finished there were 2 ideas that that were selected as the best - converging. One person said, “I like going to the beach to feel refreshed, the white sand, blue ocean, breezes blowing, blue sky, the white clouds.” Somebody else said, “I like going to the seacoast.” That afternoon, we invented a bar called “Coast.” It was blue and white swirly, envisioning being at the beach. We were finally able to beat Irish Spring in a blind test that allowed us to go to market. 30+ years later we are still in that market – a very, very big market with many competitors making green and blue stripes but we are still at the point where that was a breakthrough.
Now, what’s the problem? If I asked you, “How long did this solution take,” the answer is a couple of hours, once we were working on the right thing. What stopped us from doing that is that was we spent 6 months jumping from step 1 to step 8 costing us 6 months of deadlock. Defining the problem better would have saved us a lot of time. This is the problem we so often have: most of us think in terms of solutions, not in terms of problems so we often jump to solve the wrong problem because we’re in too big a hurry. The team said, “We had to go fast,” so what they did was they would go from 1 to 8, six times problem finding to action, back and forth, fuzzy situation to action. But if we proceed through steps 1-to-8 it will save us a lot of time by thinking things through a process.
Now why don’t we do this naturally? One of the reasons, not only because we’re in a hurry, we’ve never been taught this. This is called, Problem Definition and in some cases people will call it an aspect of Design Thinking. However, we’re not taught this in school. We’re taught solutions all the way through high school, most college, engineering, and business. We lack the basic understanding of how to go from a fuzzy situation, fact finding to problem definition. We take the problem, as given, as opposed to redefining the problem. So that’s a major tool – it’s called, “Let’s not jump from 1 to 8.” It becomes the language of innovation.