insights & research

Perception – the Fuzzy Situation, then the Facts
(Accurate Problem Identification)

By Paul Almas, Vice-president, Design & Development
Basadur Applied Creativity Inc.

Story Theme: Highlighting the importance that a problem solving process must identify real problems, not perceived ones - that Canada has a innovation shortfall and to embrace this as a fact is the first step towards innovating creative problem solving remedies.

The eminent English philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell gave this word of advice. "Never let yourself be diverted either by what you would wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. Look only at facts." Another of Russell's contemporaries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

We live in a perceptual world. Rumors, myths and partial perceptions comprise much of our day-to-day information quotient. Without enough news to go around, our news outlets creatively generate partial fictions from incomplete facts and present them to us as reality. Even eye witness testimony is unreliable. When processed through our individual personalities, experiences and values, the partial fiction starts to masquerade as fact.

This distortion presents a real challenge when we attempt to solve problems. If we fail to objectively uncover REAL problems, we may well end up solving non-existent problems or the wrong problem all together.

Immersed in this perceptional culture, how can we realistically be confident that we have all the realities at hand when we attempt to problem solve? We need to consciously separate content, what we know and what we think we know, from process – a rigorous independent methodology for objectively handling the content. Graduate business school curriculum designers understand. They are integrating problem solving design theory into MBA programs as the new innovation in management thinking. Traditional design schools teach designers to separate fact from fiction using problem solving processes that usually have either five or six steps. Step one, "The Problem Statement," is followed by research, hypothesis, synthesis and implementation. The six step process includes an evaluation phase.

Step 1 implies the ability to objectively define a problem. However, if this task is assigned to people immersed in the challenges of the problem without a clear, independent process for objectively spotting new or alternative opportunities, poorly articulated assumptions, inadequate and inaccurate problem identification will usually be the result. If their knowledge and content is facilitated with a independent process, they will enjoy a significantly better outcome.

Here's a personal experience. Our design firm was retained to develop multiple lines of contract furniture for a manufacturer located in central Canada – not the Greater Toronto Area - central Canada, the geographical centre of the Great White North, Winnipeg Manitoba, where location tends to isolate. Quips like, "Everybody flies over Winnipeg," and "Winnipeg is not the end of the earth, but you can see it from here," reinforce the stereotype. Our client was wrestling with the prohibitive cost of getting new designs to the major Canadian architectural/design communities, thousands of miles away in Toronto and Montreal. He was firmly entrenched in a conventional paradigm as a Canadian manufacturer with a market is 5000 miles wide by 100 miles high. A simple shift in perspective and a 90° re-orientation of the geographical axis revealed Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota only 500 miles due south – larger than Montreal and Vancouver markets put together! St Louis, Kansas City, Dallas and Houston, all lucrative markets along that axis made the total coast-to-coast domestic scene look junior league by comparison. The value added was that a Winnipeg firm is better positioned to service this U.S. market than those located in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. By helping our Client reframe his perceived challenge, objectively adjusting his prevailing subjective perception we were able to generate an accurate problem statement within factual realities.

Now, perception grow legs in seconds on the world wide web, converting incomplete bits and bites of information into sub-modules of miss-perception and full packages of miss-information. The need for an independent, objective process to sift fact from fiction is more important than ever and globalism magnifies the intensity of this challenge. If we are to innovate successfully, starting with accurate facts is essential.

The disturbing changes in the U.S. economy are stimulating uncertainty throughout Canada as well. Even so, our economists are telling us that although we may feel some discomfort, the fundamentals of the Canadian economic profile are sound – primarily because of our natural resourced base wealth. Blind reliance on our seemingly perpetual natural resources may be, in fact, a key deterrent to our nation's motivation to innovate. At least the Conference Board of Canada thinks so. Last week they released an executive summary of their most recent research project entitled, "How Canada Performs 2008: A Report Card on Canada." The report gives Canada a "D" in the category of innovation – which is, by their definition, "The ability to turn knowledge into new and improved goods and services." When benchmarked against our international peers, we now rank 13 out of 17. In the CB's words, "This move to the back of the class is costly." Our lack of innovation leads directly to our dropping level of productivity which, in turn is directly linked to our deteriorating infrastructure, healthcare system performance, and cost of social programs. Our government incentives intended to stimulate innovation result in scientific discovery that somehow falls short of transformation into competitive products and services. We'll have more detail in September, 2008 when the Conference Board issues the full document, but there is enough supportable fact in the advance paper to raise the call to rigorous fact finding and accurate problem definition around the question; how might Canadians rise to the challenge of improving our productivity by becoming more innovative?


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