Solving Business Problems Is No Harder Than Making Toast

Posted by Matt Reilly on Aug 17, 2017 10:29:45 AM

Two things happen when you come face-to-face with a business conundrum. First, you panic a little, because all business problems are complex. There just seems to be an endless number of variables to keep track of. Second, you try to split the problem down into its basic parts. However, this is more of an art than a science.

Consider this: you’re a payroll company who wants to foster better relationships with your current partner base (insurance agents, accountants, etc.). How many steps does this take?

Tough question.

Often, it’s easier to answer a question like that with visualization rather than words. It’s like that old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When it comes to business planning and systems management, it really is true.

That’s what Tom Wujec explores in this TED talk about how to solve your company’s “wicked problem.” The exercise he designed to explain this process to people involves having them draw the process of making toast -- and here’s the catch -- with no words. Only images, and numbers if necessary.

There are a lot of important observations he pulls out of his experience doing the exercise with people. Here are a few:

  • If you ask one person to draw “how to make toast” on a single sheet of paper, it will be completed quickly, but most other people will be confused by the finished product. For some people, the picture will be too simple. Not enough steps. For some it will be too complex. They’ll feel like it could have been made more efficient. For others, it will simply be confusing. They won’t understand one or more of the doodled shapes.
  • If you ask that same person to draw “how to make toast” on multiple, small note cards (one step per card), it will be more clear, there will be more steps, and each step will be more detailed. But, it will take longer. They’re also more likely (and able) to make corrections mid-process because the notes can be easily rearranged.
  • If you ask multiple people to each draw out the process of making toast via the note cards, and then combine their notes into one “master” flow-chart (removing duplicate steps), the resultant process outline will be the most detailed and have the most number of elaborated steps. It will also take the most time, by far.
  • If you do everything in the last bullet, but you tell people not to speak to each other while they do it, the process goes significantly faster, without the final product being worse. Apparently, words can sometimes get in the way when you are trying to reduce complexity and solidify a system.

So what are the lessons here for your small business? Well, maybe working one person at a time, each handing the product off to the next in line to make iterations, is not the best way to handle problem-solving. If your team works that way, there is a lot of "catching-up" to do just to understand what the first contributor did. That's a lot of lost time per individual.

Instead, getting a group together and having each person do their best individually, and then synthesizing the efforts into one, multi-viewpoint solution is the way to go. Your team ends up getting the benefits of collaboration without the wasted time spent explaining each decision they make as they make it. Instead, all the effort to compare and contrast viewpoints is compressed onto the end of process, where it's much easier to be objective about each idea's merit.


That saves you time in the long-run, and produces the best quality work.


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