Got a problem to solve? Here's a nudge in the right direction

Brexit giving you a headache? Well here’s a chance to spend 5 minutes thinking about something entirely different. How creativity and behavioural science can help you become more adept at solving problems....


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1 . START BY ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS - at the point of commissioning a service or A product, most of our clients know the outcome they want to achieve, but it’s unlikely that they would be able to pinpoint the precise area of focus for our work. That’s not a criticism - it’s pretty usual. A key part of problem solving, particularly complex problems, is to determine early on, which part of the problem you need to focus on, in order to create maximum impact.


2. YOU ARE PROBABLY NOT THE FIRST PERSON TO TRY TO SOLVE ANY GIVEN CHALLENGE - So why do so many intervention designers act as if they are?

How many meetings have you sat in where the problem holder will start with the question, “so what should we do about this?”

If you start by asking this question you potentially ignore huge amounts of pre-existing research, evidence and ideas, including the opportunity to learn from failure. So-Mo are currently delivering a commission to reduce some of the highest levels of pedestrian casualties in the UK but we certainly weren't the first people to ask, “how might we reduce adult pedestrian casualties on the road?” so there was lots of existing research, data and a wealth of subject matter experts to speak to, all of whom had something interesting to say and who brought a unique perspective on the challenge.

alcohol pedestrians and taxi drivers - a potentially fatal mix?

3. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN CONTEXT - Secondary research will help you to identify some interesting themes but it will also generate as many questions as it answers. Once we've isolated our themes of enquiry we move onto primary research, which is a fancy name for getting out there and seeing first-hand what is actually going on.

We ask people affected by the problem questions about their beliefs, we observe their behaviours (behavioural mapping) and examine the impact of the environment on their choices and actions (choice architecture). The video above demonstrates far better than any written evidence, how taxis and the night-time economy can make potentially fatal mix. Getting out there and immersing yourself in context is a valuable activity that will give you insight into the route cause of a particular problem and an indication of where your focus should be directed .

4. HAVING SAID THAT -DON’T JUMP INTO ‘SOLUTION SPACE’ TOO EARLY! We advise suspending all temptation to pounce on solutions too early in your journey. Confirmation bias is the psychological term used to describe our reluctance to be influenced by evidence that conflicts with our beliefs, whilst we are heightened to evidence that reinforces our world view or preference. One thing I say to clients who come armed with a ready made solution is, 

“that’s a great idea but how, at this early stage, can you be sure it is the best possible solution to your problem?” 

Now I’ve raised this, see how many times you catch yourself jumping straight into solution space as soon as a problem is presented to you.

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5. TAKE LATERAL LEAPS AND LOOK FOR PATTERNS - we use an indirect, creative approach to problem solving and we try to view every problem in a new and unusual light. After thorough research, we will look for patterns in the data, take lateral leaps and challenge accepted wisdoms. Never be afraid to approach problems from different angles.


6. AN INSIGHT IS LESS OF A REVELATION AND MORE OF A REALISATION - Insights reframe a problem, clarifying the elements that we can do something about. There are lots of highly technical explanations which define the difference between a true insight and a 'fact' or an 'observation' but my favourite, (because it's so simple) is that; a good insight is like a refrigerator - when you look into one, a light comes on.

Every insight is a springboard you can use to generate ideas for solutions.


7. WHEN YOU ARE READY TO START DESIGNING YOUR SOLUTION GO FOR LOTS AND LOTS OF IDEAS - AND THEN TRY FOR MORE! When you limit yourself to a few ideas, you are much more likely to be conservative in your thinking, which means you are more likely to come up with ideas that model or reflect the status quo.

At So-Mo we always guarantee our clients that we will come up with 100 unique ideas. With 100 ideas as your starting point, you’re much more likely to stumble upon something innovative.


8.LEARN TO BE COMFORTABLE WITH A DEGREE OF AMBIGUITY, LOOK FOR SOLUTIONS IN UNLIKELY PLACES AND EMBRACE WILD IDEAS! - Messy intractable problems are seldom solved through a process of simple deduction and logic. If that were the case, we probably would have solved them by now.

How an engineer thinks someone proceeds to their destination vs how a drunk person proceeds to their destination

How an engineer thinks someone proceeds to their destination vs how a drunk person proceeds to their destination

9. PEOPLE ARE IRRATIONAL, THEY HAVE BIASES AND ARE OFTEN UNPREDICTABLE - DON'T BLAME THEM IT'S THE HUMAN CONDITION Never design solutions on the basis that that people are rational beings who always weigh up the relative costs and benefits of a particular choice or action and then act accordingly.

As a rule, people don’t make purely rational choices. They are also influenced by their environment, social norms and operate under an array of cognitive biases. As a race we are far more similar to Captain Kirk (a man ruled by impulse and emotion) than we are to the highly analytical Spock. Economists have learnt this lesson the hard way!

So why then, is the standard response to many social challenges, "let's do some awareness raising, or educate people" ?

The thinking goes…. if we just show people the most sensible way to live their lives, provide them with the tools, knowledge and skills they need they will go on to make sensible choices for themselves and their families.

When was the last time you heard someone say “Thanks for telling me that texting whilst driving decreases my driving ability leading to potentially fatal consequences - Ill stop doing that right now”.

Here's a great example of where this approach recently fell down ; The USA invested in a meta analysis into the impact of 100's millions of dollars spent on educating people in financial literacy; at the end of months of research, the report concluded that if you educate people, it is likely that they will remember the skills they are taught but it doesn't mean that they will use them. So what was the impact of 100s of millions of dollars spent on financial literacy training? The report concluded that outcomes relating to financial literacy had improved by less that 0.1 %

In our work, we find that, more often than not, people are already aware of the consequences and dangers of their actions - they just haven't found a way to translate that knowledge into consistent adaption of their behaviour. How do we get round this?

Well, a good place to start, is to begin by designing solutions that respond to how people actually are (with all their idiosyncrasies and flaws). You can also start from the perspective that most people don't choose to be unhealthy, live in poverty when they are old, or fail to pay their bills on time. If you try to isolate the barriers and points of friction that prevent people from sticking with a healthy eating programme/ saving money/ exercising more and work to remove them you are far more likely to achieve some success. In other words try to make it easier for people to do the thing that is right for them and for society as a whole.

10. RESEARCH SHOWS THAT GREAT TEAMS ARE MORE LIKELY TO FIND INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS THAN ONE GIFTED INDIVIDUAL - Don't be afraid to create diverse teams. Our best teams comprise data scientists, behavioural scientists, artists & makers, engineers, academics and the client themselves. Silo teams tend to create echo chambers - lets face if it's much more comfortable to stick with what you know.....

So there are our top ten pointers for effective problem solving.

Nicola Wass

If you want to find out more, we offer training on innovative thinking and behaviour change WHICH CAN BE tailored to your organisation’s needs and the problems you are looking to solve.