Trends

When a Complex Problem Requires a Simple Solution

How to Avoid Over-Engineering (and Overspending) to Take a Path of Lesser Resistance

By Paul Tibbert, CEO of GRID

Dr. Spencer Silver, a 3M scientist working in a laboratory, didn’t set out to invent the Post-It Note. But when his colleague, Art Fry (another 3M scientist), discovered a practical application for a solution Silver had stumbled upon by mistake, a “eureka moment” became the foundation for an iconic brand and a life-changing product. 

What we now know generically as the “sticky note” was originally an invention without a purpose. Silver was busy researching adhesives in a laboratory when he discovered something peculiar: an adhesive that stuck lightly to surfaces but didn’t bond tightly to them. What Silver had encountered was something called microspheres, which retain their stickiness but with a “removability characteristic,” allowing attached surfaces to peel apart easily.

Meanwhile:

Art Fry, another 3M scientist, was frustrated. Every Wednesday night while practicing with his church choir, he would use little scraps of paper to mark the hymns they were going to sing in the upcoming service. By Sunday, he’d find that they’d all fallen out of the hymnal.

He needed a bookmark that would stick to the paper without damaging the pages.

Thinking back to a seminar he’d attended on Silver’s microspheres, he had what he now refers to as his eureka moment. “The one where you get the adrenaline rush.”¹

Partnering with Silver, they began developing a product. Once they found themselves writing messages on their new notes to communicate around the office, they realized the full potential of the idea.

“I thought, what we have here isn’t just a bookmark,” said Fry. “It’s a whole new way to communicate.”

As we look upon the innovation today, using the yellow sticky memos almost without thinking in our daily lives some 40 years later, the solution seems self-evident. Of course: A mild adhesive affixed to the back of small paper sheets — removable, movable, reusable — would work far better than anything you could alternatively propose. 

Looseleaf and staples? Silly. 

Paper and scotch tape? Clunky and cumbersome.

Paper and glue? Permanent and messy.

The simplest solution of all? Just right.

There is a lot to learn about what Silver and Fry came upon practically entirely by accident that can be applied to modern problem solving, product development and solution deployment. It’s a methodology I use all the time in our company’s pursuit of problem solving that offers precision and efficiency at once… 

“Does what we’re considering feel like a Post-It Note solution?”

How Over-Engineering Costs You Time and Money

It’s not uncommon to find such a phenomenon in play in the IT industry when technical expertise is employed, or in the general field of business when process design is being pursued by management. The tendencies are understandable, in fact. In the case of IT, a beginner tactician starts to achieve proficiency, then later even mastery. Along the way, this practitioner discovers a love, a reliance, and even a seduction of the power of technology to solve modern problems.

The risk becomes when that seduction manifests itself as an unending pursuit of possibilities. Sometimes, the problem solving team manages to outpace the challenge itself, finding themselves too far downstream from where the problem truly needs to be solved. 

Consider the Post-It Note. Now that we have it, even a layperson can recognize its utility and brilliance. We can look at Silver’s invention now and think, “Of course! Why would you ever consider doing it any other way?” It’s self-evident.

So could it be said for a great many solutions in the modern problem-solving discipline. We see a lot of this sort of thing happening with artificial intelligence in the manufacturing space, for example. Certainly, there are potential applications for AI along the supply and production chains. But it is also often the case that the pursuit of artificial intelligence solutions is done more so for the excitement in the pursuit of the new and novel, and less in the pursuit of solving the matter at hand. Sometimes, a simple algorithm is the better tool for a given challenge than the myriad and impressive capabilities of modern AI.

One thing I encourage leadership teams and IT professionals alike to guard against is the seduction of the over-engineered, when the utilitarian is within reach, far more cost-effective, and even a better answer for the actual question being asked. Instead, I advocate for an approach in which the solution “feels like a Post-It note.” Once you arrive at the recognition that, Of course this is the way to solve this challenge, you’ve reached your destination, and you can be confident that the time to iterate is over. It’s time to apply the solution.

After all, Silver and Fry stopped ideating once the problem was solved. They could’ve kept exploring in perpetuity. But here we are, four decades forth, and we are still using the best, most basic, solution for the task — even keeping with the original yellow color in most cases!

Signs You May Be Missing the Proverbial the Sticky Note

Here are some warning signs that you, your team or your service providers may be getting mired down by over-ideating to the point that such overanalysis is costing the company or project time and money:

You begin to consider so many potential paths forward that all or most of them have inherent compromises and tradeoffs, or the details or each get confused with other approaches.

There’s an intuitive sense that “there has to be an easier way.”

It’s taking too long for the project to actually kick off.

You notice projects are constantly in either feast or famine mode.

Scope creep. Budget creep. Timeline and deadline extensions.

Signs You’ve Found the Right Solution:

This may, at first blush, seem to be “a feel thing” — but that feeling is trying to tell you something. And it becomes increasingly recognizable the more you go looking for it.

The feeling is the realization that you’ve arrived at a self-evident solution — like the sticky note — and it becomes natural for a layperson to question, “How did it take you that long to come up with the obvious answer?”

That feeling (and calculus) is the point at which real-world solutions can be applied to real-world challenges, without further deliberation or hesitation. 

Just like the Post-It Note.

 

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