Obvious Solutions

From what I can tell, LinkedIn has turned into a place where dim white-collar workers write essays containing their latest groundbreaking ideas without realising they’ve stumbled onto ground amply covered for the past century by people much cleverer than they. You also get a lot of brown-nosing, especially in the comments. And you also get stuff like this:

So rather than adopting the quick, proven, and obvious solution, from now on she’ll engage in navel gazing to better herself. From this I conclude she must be a middle manager in a modern corporation.

Actually, it turns out she’s a lifestyle coach at around 32 years of age but my error is understandable. I remember back in university I was given an assignment by a weedy academic with a beard to design an automated system to clean the floor of an airport concourse. I basically copied the design of a standard street sweeping machine, made it a bit smaller and had it follow a set path, navigating via radio triangulation. We only had to design the concept so the details were sketchy, but my system would have worked. Only the supervisor came back with the sniffy remark that I was copying an existing solution and “there is room for lateral thinking here”. My thoughts at the time were “Does this idiot want his floor cleaned or not?”

You see this a lot in modern companies. Whereas continuous improvement is good, and “we’ve always done it this way” attitudes can lumber you with inefficiencies, there is much to be said for having a little humility when tackling problems, starting with the recognition that you are probably not the first to have faced them. Alas, humility is a rare commodity in modern organisations whereas hubris lies in abundance, hence managers airily dismiss proven solutions in favour of one which requires lengthy email correspondence, meetings, dedicated teams, and – most importantly – an opportunity to involve the hierarchy. Should an underling point out there are tried and tested methods of, say, setting up a document control system, they’re brushed aside as the workings of inferior beings; we’re much smarter than them.

My advice to anyone confronted with a problem is to see what solutions other people have found, and whether there is a standard industry way of doing it. Chances are, people have done all the hard work and experimentation before you, and you can save yourself a lot of time and effort. Of course, if you are faced with something unique, or the standard solution simply doesn’t work, or you need to do it differently in order to save time and money, then by all means engage in a little creative thinking and try to find a better way of doing it, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re goal-driven, you’ll first look at what everyone else does and stick with what works. However, if you’re process driven, and are more interested in your career and self-promotion…well, you know what to do.

Share

27 thoughts on “Obvious Solutions

  1. “there is much to be said for having a little humility when tackling problems”

    I got very tied of the nonsense about getting to ‘outstanding’ (or similar euphemism) from a poor performing outfit overnight. When I lecture on this now, the goal is ‘good enough, and maybe a little bit better’.

    It takes a lot of time and drive to be effective at tackling problems. Most people can’t even handle looking at them, little-lone come up with actual solutions.

  2. Absolutely. And if the off-the-shelf option isn’t perfect try and make it fit if you can. Sometimes you can talk to someone and make that work.

    This also comes from a deeper problem that many organisations have – not focusing on core competencies and not realising the costs of so doing. You’ve got to think of every single cost.

    I worked for a business that built its own programming language. The guys who did it claimed it was necessary, but really they just wanted to have fun. And actually, it didn’t seem like such a terrible idea at first, but noone thought about maintenance, user support. The team rose in size one people started using it to do all that. Eventually it got canned.

    Occasionally, you have to do things outside your competency because there isn’t an off the shelf. All this Amazon Cloud services stuff is because they had no choice but to build their own cloud software.

  3. And what really winds me up – a whole industry is saying something takes so long to do and an outsider wanders in saying it can be done quicker.

    I’ve lost track of the number of ties I planned a mobile roll out based on 12 month average time to build a site in urban and rural areas and 18 months in rural areas for licence bids only to be told by the client that it can be done faster. It takes that long in just about every democracy and not very democratic country I’ve worked. I’ve even made some money being called in to sort out the cluster fuck left by consultants who told our client what they wanted to hear.

    The most egregious was the Government’s project to fix coverage in rural areas. The mobile industry was screaming that it would take at least 18 months per site, if not longer, but ministers, senior civil servants Ofcom and their consultants knew better!

    Another thing I’ve lost track of is the number of times I’ve had to point out that although it takes a woman 9 months to have a baby it does not follow that 9 women can have a baby in 1 month whenever I get told to throw more resources at a problem.

    And Tim, don’t go looking for a job in management consultancy. The clients will thank you for coming up with sensible solutions in 1 day, but the senior Partners certainly won’t. Having said that, we made a tidy living as a small specialist consultancy doing just that. Word of mouth is a very powerful marketing tool and we soon became quite in demand.

  4. Matt Ridley points out in The Evolution of Everything that breakthrough inventions are romantic but simply not how progress works.

    Everything we use today is a result of, mainly, incremental improvements on someone else’s invention.

    As for LinkedIn, it’s yet another proof of O’Sullivan’s Law.

  5. I would suggest that if the solution is likely to be needed often it’s worthwhile putting some work into developing an improvement on the standard. But not if the solution will be rarely required, as with the balloon or the bespoke software, and care must be taken not to reinvent the wheel.

  6. I am always telling my staff that there is nothing in our company that can’t be solved with a fifteen minute or less conversation with the right people.

  7. “there is much to be said for having a little humility when tackling problems, starting with the recognition that you are probably not the first to have faced them. ”

    Well, quite, what in fuck do these people think libraries are for? The accumulated wisdom of the human race, the very reason that writing and this readin’ stuff are so valuable. How did that other bugger solve this same problem?

  8. ” a whole industry is saying something takes so long to do and an outsider wanders in saying it can be done quicker.

    cluster fuck left by consultants who told our client what they wanted to hear.”

    Yeah. Take a thing I do that takes usually 12 weeks when you want it fast. Expensive big-5 management consultant, straight out of university 24-year-old type, never done a damn thing except tell other people how to do their jobs, tells client it should be done in 6. Including the non-critical-path ones.

    Thanks.

  9. I also know a 30-something life coach. Makes a shedload of money telling rich men how to get a grip on their lives, far as I can see. My big question has always been “but how does she know?” – for the whole shadoddle to work, by definition she needs to be working with folk who have already landed themselves into a well-off position in society, often objectively far more “successful” than she’s ever been. Not the (overgrown) teenager drifter-waster types who desperately do need their lives put back on track, but who woudn’t have tuppence to pay her with if she even offered.

  10. I used to write software, and then design systems for a living. Most of what I did used ideas plagiarised from other people’s software (ideas not code, though that’s common now with standard libraries, APIs, etc). Reading other people’s code & design docs is a fast way to learn stuff. It can be a bit more difficult these days with the dead hand of software patent litigation an ever-present threat.

  11. A lifestyle coach is analogous to a management consultant. They don’t need experience of the activity themselves, they just need to have seen lots of others do the activity in order to advise you on how to do it.

    But you don’t want to engage a 30 year old one; get someone with more experience. Ditto for management consultants – although at least there, the juniors will be guided by someone senior.

  12. My work has quite a lot of interesting engineering problems (mostly related to the creation and use of press tooling to form complex shapes in fairly thick (10-30mm) steel plates) which genuinely need “new” solutions, either because there is no current solution, or because any existing solutions are so obviously inefficient to make or use that it’s worth a bit of R&D time to try and improve matters.

    My biggest problems come from meddling management who invariably insist in at least one of the following when developing such ideas:
    1)The need to build straight off a complex prototype machine to make anything, with infinite adaptability, rather than try a simple prototype

    2)Any prototype tooling must be finished to the quality expected of a Rolls Royce engine component, even if it could be produced in 20 minutes with a gas axe and stick welding set from junk in the scrap skip without any ill effects on its function, and once we’ve used it twice to prove the concept it will be returned to said scrap skip.

    3) If you foolishly show management the half formed back of an envelope sketch concept of version 3c, then spot a key detail which will cause this not to work and move onto version 4a, management will always latch the old version of this key detail and insist this must be used, no matter how much you explain why it won’t work.

    4) If there are 5 possible innovations being kicked round the office, any prototype should incorporate all of them, particularly if they are likely to interact in a way that means when it then doesn’t work we won’t really know why.

  13. Familiar territory. I’m involved with a project to get a simple Purchase order Processing system up and running. There are well-established procedures but everyone else seems intent on reinventing the wheel. At which point I’m reminded of Douglas Adam’s line from HHGTG; “All right Mr Smart guy, you tell us what colour it should be!”

  14. @theProle

    You would excel in my organisation. We have a fleet of very complex and high cost German specialized equipment and we also have a fleet of our own built machines that whilst our fleet has some limitations on the right job they are just as good as the 800% more expensive German machine.

    We recently promoted our Ops Manager, that started with us donkey years ago as a boilermaker into the position of GM. Some frowned about this blue collar promotion to that level. We have a problem job in Melbourne and he recently came up with an engineering solution and designed a new donculator, got a drafty to draw it up, made it in our workshop and we are now getting a massive productivity improvement out of it and are now making another one.

    Great result, plus our potential clients like talking to him about methodologies he gives them a maximum of two options or only one and clearly states to them why this is the way to do it. We are seeing an uptrend in our tender strike rate since he took on the role.

    I done his first performance review with him as GM on Friday, the identified improvements for him are in how he deals with other staff, he can be a bit blunt as if he is yelling at someone on site and lacks some political acumen. He sits in the office next to me and we are pretty confident that we have a good un in the chair.

  15. I’m a software engineer, and one of the most common things I have to say during meetings is “this is a solved problem”. I acknowledge that programmers like to program, and so using off-the-shelf solutions and third-party libraries is often a psychologically distasteful solution, but that’s part of learning how to be a good software engineer.

    I’m also routinely flabbergasted how many developers I work with have never heard of The Mythical Man-Month or Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming.

  16. “…he can be a bit blunt as if he is yelling at someone on site and lacks some political acumen.”

    Normal for Australia?

  17. Not really, it’s a bit of a myth, yes on site like everywhere else but no you wont go far doing it in an office management setting.

    He just needs to learn how to change gear depending on who he is yelling at.

  18. The lady apparently wants her six year old son to develop his brain so it is like Dan Dare’s enemy in the Eagle (all spindly limbs and a huge head) who was called the Mekon.

    Go for it, lady. But to me here is another example of the supposed wisdom of kids* You see it among lefties, usually like: “My four year old turned to me and asked thoughtfully, mommy, how can a functioning, caring democracy like ours vote for Trump when there are children like me dying at the border, removed from their parents and should they survive, likely to be shot in school by nazis? I could not answer her.”

    *Of course, said genius kids don’t exist unless mommy and daddy are really, really bright already.

  19. I knew there was a reason I avoided LinkedIn. It always seemed to me the online equivalent of ‘networking’, which I’ve always seen as what you do to if you have no a) talent or b) friends.

    But I do have two important questions.

    1. Did the kid actually get the balloon down?
    2. Does the poster understand the OH&S implications of telling a subordinate to stand on a stool to complete their task?

  20. Virtually the only thing I know about Linkedin is from the e-mails they regularly send me, telling me there’s been two – it’s inevitably two – people searching for me on it. Since I never put identifiable information on the interweb & the only thing they would know about me is the e-mail address, I conclude that either 1) Linkedin are lying. or 2) Linkedin is used by the sort of crazed assoles I need to keep a wide berth of.
    32 year old lifestyle coaches, regard their rugrats as inspirational, seems pretty well definitive when it comes to crazed assoles.

  21. >I was given an assignment by a weedy academic with a beard to design an automated system to clean the floor of an airport concourse. I basically copied the design of a standard street sweeping machine, made it a bit smaller and had it follow a set path, navigating via radio triangulation. We only had to design the concept so the details were sketchy, but my system would have worked. Only the supervisor came back with the sniffy remark that I was copying an existing solution and “there is room for lateral thinking here”.

    There are two reasons you might want to design such a thing. One, you own an airport, or something similar, and you need the floors cleaned, and you want to save money by doing it yourself rather than getting in a firm to do it. In that case the last thing you want is to spend a load of time and money trying to think of an ingenious solution that no-one’s done before. You just want to copy a cost-effective method to get the job done quickly and cheaply.

    The other reason is if you’re specifically trying to set up a new company that uses a new and better method than all the existing methods. In that case, sure, you want some laterial thinking. But (a) an assignment should specify if this is the situation, because in the real world you would know whether it’s the first scenario or the second (or another); and (b) you really need to have the idea first before setting up the company. It would be foolish to think ‘Let’s improve automatic floor cleaning by hiring a bunch of designers to come up with a better method” if you’ve no actual idea how this could be done. (Maybe if you’re a big rich company you can afford to do this with a few areas, and maybe some of them will pay off. But generally it’s a way to burn through money.)

  22. (D)esign an automated system to clean the floor of an airport concourse

    How about a gallon of petrol poured on the floor followed by a lit match. Fast, effective and cheap. It will also eliminate the need to wash the windows too.

    Novel enough for all concerned? Or was this not QUITE what you had in mind, Mr. lecturer?

  23. @Phil

    I was going to suggest that the kid throw lit matches at the balloon, that’s the kind of things I used to play around with and discover things at his age.

  24. @Bardon – I’d have used an air rifle at that age but nowadays with political correctness, hoplophobia and suchlike, it wold be frowned upon, somewhat! >};o)

  25. “What are the chances that the 6 y/o ended up throwing something sharp at the balloon and caused lots of damage/injury?”

    My husband oversees a church hall with a high roof and often has to deal with getting helium balloons down. Strictly speaking people aren’t meant to use them but of course they do; he tells them that if one (or more!) gets stuck on the ceiling to leave another couple tied securely somewhere. He covers these in double sided sellotape, gives them a longer string, and goes “fishing”. Tedious process but it does the job.

    At least until the twits who decided that they wouldn’t follow this advice came along and decided they would, instead, throw knives at a balloon. One lodged in the ceiling, just inches from the highest point. Cue my husband and I at 11pm on the church’s highest step ladder (which is not high), three brooms taped together, trying to knock the knife out of the ceiling. There was meant to be a kiddy group in the next morning so leaving it wasn’t much of an option.

  26. Only the supervisor came back with the sniffy remark that I was copying an existing solution and “there is room for lateral thinking here”.

    Were IP infringement issues part of the course/assignment? I know in software and embedded firmware a lot of reinventing of the wheel happens in order to avoid patent infringement.

Comments are closed.