Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Why isn’t the obvious obvious to others?

One of the reoccurring themes in my work is the need for those who are involved with a problem to find their own solution and to implement that solution. I can get quite passionate about the need for action and the demotivating effects of having someone else work out the solution and simple pass it on for you to execute.

Still there may be occasions were an outsider’s view can be helpful. I’m sure we’ve all been in situation were we are powerless to effect a decision, it could be events in our office, our company’s strategy, or Government policy, perhaps its a football team selection. What is obvious to us, and often obvious to our drinking partners too, somehow isn’t obvious to those charged with making the decisions: our manager, the prime minister, the team manager. Why is the obvious not so obvious?

One reason might simply be that we (who think we see an obvious answer) lack information. Sure doing X is obvious, and sure the people in charge have considered it but doing X will effect Y. That Y exists and is a potential problem might not be common knowledge, or it could be something that we are simply ignorant of.

This explanation also works in reverse, particular were knowledge is needed. For example, as someone with lots of experience in IT I have a lot of knowledge, this allows me to see obvious solutions to many IT problems. So, its obvious to me that bid Government IT projects will go wrong but that never seems clear to those who authorise them.

A second reason is that what we consider obvious simply isn’t obvious to those making the decision. Perhaps they see a lot of related issues so can’t see the wood for the trees; perhaps they have some personal stake that makes it hard for them to do X; or perhaps it simply isn’t obvious. In such cases it can be possible to be too close to the problem.

I noticed this the other week. I was having problems sorting out some problems of my own when a friend called looking for advice for her problems. After hearing her problems I made some suggestions, the solutions seemed straight forward, at the end of the conversation she said something like “Yes, they are good ideas I’ll try them.” While I was able to solve someone else’s problems I couldn’t solve my own.

So, sometimes you can’t solve your own problems even when there is an “obvious” solution. You need help to see the problem. How can we reconcile this with my opening point about the need for people to find their own solutions and act on them? Well, I think the trick is two fold: first know when you need an outsiders opinion, and two, if you are that outsider, try and give the solution in such a way that the person asking takes the solution as their own.