Was this ambitious enough?It’s all too easy to set about solving the wrong problem. If we don’t frame the question properly, the answer can lead us down the wrong path – focusing on a solution that doesn’t address the real need or opportunity.  We can quickly end up in a muddle.

Today, more than ever, starting with the right question can open the door to innovation.  A question that presumes a narrow, incremental solution can switch off the opportunity to make a significant breakthrough.

If we had never done this before, how would we do it for the first time with today’s resources?

A question arrived in my inbox recently, in which the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) asked for thoughts on the wisdom of numbering the lines on draft standards.  Would line numbers make it easier for people to submit, manage and process comments on draft documents? This was a classic example of an incremental improvement to the much broader challenge of the time it takes to draft and finalise an international standard.

Indeed, when ISO invited Australia to submit its standard for Governance of IT, AS8015, for adoption as the international standard for governance of IT, our team used the quaintly named Fast Track process.  It took only 18 months to rewrite the original AS document into a conceptually identical ISO document of the same length!

How often when people ask for help on a problem do we see a possible solution masquerading as the core question, and the real issue being left unstated

To combat this, I use a six-point mantra to frame initiatives:

  • Objective – what are we trying to achieve?
  • Value – why is it important?
  • Approach – how will we make it happen?
  • Performance – how will we know if we are successful?
  • Risk – how will we resolve the things that could affect success?
  • Responsibility – who has to do what to make this happen?

The objective behind the question I received was not stated, but it was hardly likely to be incorporation of line numbering in draft ISO standards!

Even though they were trying to improve the editing process for standards, they weren’t asking a big enough question:

“Given that the problem is to be able to locate the exact sentence in a draft text that can still be modified, are there any other tools that could be used to anchor a comment directly on a concept or a sentence (such as collaborative authoring tools) and that could be applicable to the development of ISO standards?”

Their value statement was also omitted.  I suspect they were looking for simpler collation and subsequent processing of comments by document authors, who would be confident that they had accurately linked each comment to its constituent element in the draft. Was this ambitious enough?

The selection of approach should come after the objective and value are clear, but in this case, defining the approach is where we entered the conversation.  A variety of approaches had been canvassed, however incompletely.  Practical problems had been identified with some of them – ranging from the impact of editing on the line numbering to the complexity of using in-situ tools such as the comments features of Word and Acrobat.  The trouble remains though, that none of the options presented would provide anything but minor incremental improvement in the task of producing international standards.

Thinking a little more about the situation, it’s not hard to see that asking “why” a few times can bring clarity to the situation, and open some more paths to breakthrough innovation:

  • Why do we need line numbers on standards?
    • To simplify collation and processing of comments.
  • Why do we need to simplify collation and processing of comments?
    • Because comments come from many sources and are maintained separately from the documents to which they pertain.
  • Why are comments maintained separately from the document to which they pertain?
    • Because we have no mechanism for connecting comments to the document to which they pertain.
  • Why do we have no mechanism for connecting comments to the documents to which they pertain?
    • Because our methods have remained unchanged for many years and were developed for an era when documents were circulated for review in printed format.
  • Why do we need to change our approach?
    • Because our approach is cumbersome and slow. It does not meet the needs of 21st century standardisation.

Thus, we arrive at a new problem statement: Our approach is cumbersome and slow.  Even though documents are now distributed in PDF format and comments are transmitted by email and organised in Excel spreadsheets, the overarching process remains cumbersome and slow.  Moreover, it limits the opportunity for collaboration during the commenting process.  Adding line numbers to documents will make little difference.

From here, we can reset (or perhaps for the first time clearly state) the Objective: To improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the process for reviewing and commenting on draft standards.

The Value becomes much more significant: Shorter time to develop and publish better international standards, with reduced overhead time for volunteers and standards administrators.

The Approach would involve rethinking the entire process with a clean sheet of paper, to design a standards development process that exploits today’s technologies, with an online repository that enables controlled capture, sharing, collation and processing of comments while also managing evolving versions of each standard, making it easier for standards authors and reviewers to collaborate.

Guidance for Digital leaders

In the digital era, breakthrough performers don’t just tinker at the edges of their process.  They stand back and ask themselves more questions, to focus themselves on achieving big improvements.

They ask: If we had never done this before, how would we do it for the first time with today’s resources?

How many of your organisation’s solutions are missing the mark and focused on minor gains?

Are you expending energy and resources on a poorly framed solution, or a well-defined problem?

Starting in the Muddle?
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