Archive for the ‘facilitation’ Category

The first post in this series (available here) gave a very quick, and probably superficial, introduction to what C-K Theory claims to be and to do.  Now, we need to look at some established problem-solving methods to see how C-K Theory stands up.

Creative Problem-Solving : 

CPS is well established.  The method suggests that people separate their thinking into stages such as “problem exploration”, “idea generation and selection”, “action planning”.  That sounds simple enough, until you try it with a group of colleagues.  Some people want to jump straight to finding the solution.  I call this the “Let’s get this problem out of here so we can let some more problems in” fallacy – that fastest is always best.  Others feel energised by thinking up ever more creative solutions but lose the will to live when asked to turn just one of them into an action plan.  The most difficult stage to “sell” is the idea of checking whether the problem as stated is really what the group should be tackling.  A common objection is “This is what our boss wants us to solve so it must be right”.

If exploring the question isn’t challenging enough, CPS introduces the idea that, in each problem-solving stage, people should use both divergent thinking and convergent thinking – and to make sure that they do not mix them together.

Here is one way to picture the CPS approach:

3 Diamonds modelIf you think about any meeting you have been in where the aim was to gather new ideas, you will probably recognise that a very common sequence is “someone proposes an idea; the others find all the bad points; so that won’t work;OK whos next?”.  We call this “editing ideas as you go”.  If this is your experience, you probably ended up with very few really novel ideas that withtood this kind of serial stress test.

Even more worryingly, CPS has a lot of techniques based on metaphor (e.g. cartooning, word associations), challenging mindsets (e.g. reverse brainstorming, force-fitting), and playfulness (improvisation, poetry) . . . Enough!  CPS sounds deeply uncomfortable.

But it works . . .  when you are dealing with an intractable problem or you are genuinely looking for some breakthrough ideas . . . and when, most importantly, you work with a skilled CPS facilitator who can guide a group through the different CPS stages and divergent and convergent thinking by choosing the most appropriate technique at the right moment without adding their own ideas into the pot.

Behind CPS is the idea of creating permission, time and space for people to discover unusual re-combinations of concepts, images and thoughts which then pop out from the unconscious mind.  Koestler called this process “bo-sociation”.  These so-called “ah hah!” moments, rather than being fully-fledged solutions, are possibilities which open the door into unexpected “solution spaces”.  Then the hard work of turning the idea into reality begins.

Coming soon –“C-K Theory, CPS and TRIZ #2 – What Are the Benchmarks? (part 2)


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Argenta works with a large, international engineering company to run an Innovation Programme based on developing the ability of their project teams to plan and facilitate problem-solving Boosters. The Booster approach is based on a customised version of CPS (creative problem-solving). Our client recently attended a seminar on C-K Theory – a new approach for “designing the unknown” and he asked our advice on whether it could complement what developers in our client’s labs already do. (He is always on the lookout for the next big thing!  He had done the same thing with TRIZ.) So we did a bit of research and wrote him a paper. It is good to be challenged like this from time to time. It helps put what you do into sharper focus, and you learn a lot about how others view their own methods.

So this series of posts is based on what we learned. In this first post we need to provide a “rough guide” to C-K Theory as the new kid on the block. The next post will look at what we might mean by a “problem-solving method” and will develop some benchmarks by considering two established alternatives – CPS and TRIZ. Post #3 will propose three important questions to ask of any problem-solving method and will include the answers we came up with for the three methods we looked at. In post #4 we will suggest a model for capturing the most significant differences between the methods and discuss how this helps decide which oneis right in which context. Probably some other thoughts will occur to us at this point and so lead to other interesting stuff – let’s see.

C-K Theory :
The authors of this method claim that it offers a new and distinctive perspective on the cognitive processes underlying inventiveness and design. We use inventiveness to describe the ability of the human brain to produce thoughts which cannot be logically derived from previous knowledge yet which subsequently lead to successful applications. In the context of design and engineering, inventiveness would translate into
applied creativity; that is, problem-solving insights which produce routes towards novel solutions
innovation; that is, collaborative efforts to move from an idea to a real object (or system or product) which matches a human need of some kind.
The C-K approach (see this diagram) is based on the idea that inventiveness takes place when you explore two different spaces – Concept Space (C) and Knowledge Space (K) – and involves swapping your thinking within and between these two spaces; for example, K to C, C to C’, C to K, K to K’.
Two important points are that
– K-space is the space of codified and logical past learning (stuff people already “know” or could look up) while C-space is the space of concepts (stuff which is neither fully definable nor understood in exactly the same way by everyone and which can be explored to uncover novel, surprising ideas)
– exploring a concept to uncover fresh insights occurs by expansive partitioning of that concept – adding, subtracting or substituting attributes from ideas within K-space.

This reminds us of Pasteur’s claim that “inspiration is the impact of a fact on a well prepared mind”.

C-K Theory derives from, and appears to be mainly driven by, the work of Armand Hatchuel – Professor of Management Sciences and Design Engineering, Ecole des Mines, Paris. He has a 13 minute video introducing the concepts of C-K Theory available here.

Coming soon :  “C-K Theory, CPS and TRIZ #2 – What Are the Benchmarks?

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A few posts ago (here) Brian was describing using an influence matrix with a group of Naval Architecture students. He said, ” … they concluded (correctly) that there is stakeholder gridlock. Every stakeholder is waiting for another stakeholder to change first. A profound insight for a student group, and a situation that is rare.”

Here’s another example of a stakeholder impasse. Take a look at this stakeholder commitment chart from an innovation booster in which the UK-based problem owner and participants were exploring a new business model and how it could be “sold” to the rest of the multinational company.

Fig.1 - "We'll never get France on board"

This tool requires you to a) list your stakeholders, b) rate their impact on what you’re trying to do [note that impact of (FR) is much higher than (IT)], on a scale of 1-10, c) gauge the desired level of commitment required from them to move forward on your proposal, then d) gauge their actual level of commitment. The distance between the desired and actual levels of commitment gives you a nice visual of how difficult moving your stakeholder from d) to c) is likely to be.

After carrying out this exercise we invite participants to brainstorm ways of reducing the difficulty of getting the stakeholder on board, or of reducing their impact on what you’re trying to do. This is what they came up with:

(Dislaimer: I apologise for the way in which the French are referred to in this exercise and this does not in any way reflect how I perceive the French, with whom we have worked for many happy years. Bear in mind that you could substitute any other nationality, department, business line, competitor, etc. in this kind of stakeholder tussle and get similar levels of rudeness.)

Fig.2 - "How to get the French on board"

This is also in line with an extensive study completed in 2006, (“Silence Fails” by VitalSmarts) which gives  five core reasons why projects fail, one of which they call “project chicken”:

“This costly game resembles the lunatic practice of driving cars head-on as a test of nerves to see who swerves out of the way first—or who is more “chicken.” The corporate version is played when project leaders fail to admit they may fall short on deliverables and need more time. Instead, they hope some other group that has problems will speak up first. Whoever speaks up first will be blamed for causing the delay, but everyone who is behind will benefit.”

There are two ways I can think of to deal with this kind of situation.

  1. In the case of the above innovation booster, the team with the idea for a new business model ended up developing and implementing their idea “underground”, by creating a ring-fenced project that was able to operate below the multinational radar until the idea had reached a state of maturity, for which it has proved far easier to gain buy-in.
  2. There are a couple of critical questions we ask when we are scoping a problem or opportunity with a problem owner: “What are you, realistically, in a position to do?” and “Do you think there is a solution to this problem?” These are helpful in surfacing the existence of intransigent stakeholders and ultimately helps us decide whether there is an opportunity worth pursuing or not.

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Signs that the workshop could have been better prepared:

  1. At the end the problem owner says things like “Well, that was a bloody waste of time, as I knew it would be.”
  2. When the facilitator asks the problem owner if the workshop seems to be going the way he expected, he says things like “You tell me.” or “I can’t see anything that looks like an idea.” or “How am I supposed to know?”
  3. None of the ideas proposed are things that the participants have any authority, experience or competence to implement.
  4. The ideas are all abstract nouns ( improve communication, engage management, define strategy, …).
  5. There is a parade of elephants in the room that everyone is studiously ignoring.
  6. No-one turns up.

Signs that the workshop has not been properly designed:

  1. The participants moan about the activities, the post-its, the pens and mutiny when asked to engage in any kind of “wacky” creative technique.
  2. The day ends before participants get a chance to develop ideas or define plans
  3. Most of the time is taken up by turgid presentations that over-run.
  4. Very few ideas are proposed. A sure sign people don’t understand the question they’re supposed to be brainstorming.
  5. A senior manager is criticizing every idea that is presented.
  6. A senior manager is initialing all his post-its.
  7. Everyone waits to hear what the senior manager says before suggesting or voting for anything.

Signs that the facilitation team is less than well-prepared

  1. The facilitator is telling the participants what kind of ideas they should be having.
  2. The facilitator is criticising the participants’ ideas.
  3. The facilitator is bossing the participants around, or shouting at them.
  4. The participants have split off into pairs or groups and are talking about what they’d rather be doing, paying no attention to the facilitator.
  5. The facilitator clearly has no idea what to do and one of the participants takes over.

Signs that the workshop is doomed from the start

  1. There is more than one problem owner.
  2. The problem owner is not there.
  3. There is no problem owner.

Signs of poor housekeeping guaranteed to knock 50% off the perceived value of the event in the feedback forms

  1. Horrible premises: rubbish food and service, no natural light or view of industrial wasteland, some men in white jump-suits and breathing apparatus carrying a geiger-counter are wandering around the premises (actually happened), no wall-space, terrible acoustics, no technical support, broken furnishings, tables and chairs nailed to the floor, being crammed into tiny a space, no air conditioning, hard to get to, obviously cheap, …
  2. Not enough post-its, flip-charts, pens and/or crap pens that run out or stain everything, no way of sticking flip charts onto the wall, etc.
  3. Logistical issues: people having to rush off before it’s finished, people panicking because they haven’t booked airport transport, …
  4. No name tags,  so no-one knows who anyone is.

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the string game

There seem to be a number of myths about learning: that it’s fun, that it comes naturally, that once you learn something you never forget it (like learning to ride a bike), that it’s gratifying –  its own reward. The truth is, learning is hell, (which was the alternative title for this post).

We often ask our trainee innovation faciliators to solve a problem we call the string game. We ask them to “manacle” themselves with a piece of string, and then link themselves to a partner by threading one person’s “chain” through their partner’s before securing their wrist. The objective is to separate from your partner without untying or breaking the string, and without slipping the “cuffs” off your wrist. The overall purpose of the exercise is to get people to think about why people need facilitators when they are required to work with other people.

The exercise usually goes like this:
  1. Each pair will start by confidently trying to twist themselves free of each other. They will persist with this strategy even when it’s clearly not succeeding because it’s sort of fun.
  2. Frustration sets in: from total confidence that the puzzle can be solved in a jiffy each pair will declare the challenge impossible. We haven’t got all day, so I tell them it isn’t. They twist and turn some more.
  3. After a while I ask them to stop and define the problem. Someone obligingly describes it as being like trying to separate two links in a chain. This prompts me to challenge them to re-examine and re-frame the problem: “But is it two links?”
  4. They figure out that the solution might have something to do with the loops around their wrists. One pair manages to free themselves from each other. I ask them to tie themselves together again and solve the problem again. None of the other pairs is ever interested in watching the pair that’s solved the problem do it again. Sometimes the successful pair actively tries to conceal the solution from the other pairs.
  5. 50% of the time the pair that’s trying to replicate their solution only succeeds in further twisting up their strings together rather than freeing themselves.

fig.2 emotional ups and downs during the string game

In fig.2 I have tried to describe the emotional states people typically go through during the string game: it takes about 3 minutes to go from total confidence to frustration through to hopelessness; there is a split-second high when you solve the problem which is often accompanied by a Homer Simpson forehead-slapping “d’oh!” moment, after which you stop caring very much, especially when you discover that the solution is quite hard to replicate and learn.

Here are 10 of my conclusions from my anthropological observations of the string game:

  1. People don’t seem to want to learn from each other. They’d rather worry away at a problem on their own rather than see if anyone else has a solution. In fact, in some cultures that would be considered copying or cheating.
  2. People are jealous of  and secretive about their solutions and don’t want to share. Points 1 & 2 seem to go against what David Attenborough says about mammals, that our competitive advantage derives from our ability to teach and learn from each other.
  3. Learning is an emotional roller-coaster. You can experience feelings of confidence, frustratration, hopelessness and, once you’ve found the solution, you may feel like an idiot for not having seen the blindingly obvious answer.
  4. At first the problem seems familiar and the solution obvious, then it seems that this is a new problem with no solution, and most people are ready to give up at this point, and will without some encouragement.
  5. The initial assumptions people make about the problem they are trying to solve are always wrong. I believe this to be a universal truth, although it doesn’t apply to my own assumptions.
  6. If the problem really was “to separate two links of a chain” then the solution people immediately opt for, to try and twist themselves out of the link, is clearly doomed. This in no way affects their initial supreme confidence that they know what to do.
  7. Once you’ve found out what the solution is, it’s often difficult to replicate, and if you do it wrong, you can actually make the situation worse.
  8. If you don’t use the solution regularly you forget it. Faced with exactly the same game six months later, people have no recollection of what the solution is.
  9. Teaching the solution to others is difficult (not least because of points 1 and 2). A manual would probably help, but who reads those?
  10. Calling something a game does not make it fun.

This challenge is a lot like some types of problem one encounters in life (I wonder if there’s such a thing as a taxonomy of different problems?). Certain kinds of situations and tools require regular practice or exposure to really learn how to deal with them.  Things from my life that spring to mind are card games, HTML, Excel; using the computer to watch TV and manage DVDs and video and audio files is a lot more complicated than just using a TV and a DVD player and this is one of the areas where I struggle for technological independence from my partner. Come to think of it, skill sets such as facilitation would fall into this category.  Facilitation requires constant experimentation, learning and practice – and if you do it wrong, you can make things worse.

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