Years ago I watched economics writer Tim Harford deliver a TED talk, and I was blown away by its insight. This problem solving method he began to describe, I had been doing instinctively for some time – but Harford put it clearly into words.
Tim tells this incredible story about Unilever and the detergent making nozzle. See, powdered detergent is made by spraying liquid detergent into the air at high pressure. The spray dries and becomes powder. Now the nozzle Unilever used to make their detergent was highly inefficient…
Unilever had a problem
So what did Unilever do? What problem solving methodology did they deploy? We have problems daily in business and personal life. But if you walked up to someone on the street Jay Leno style – and asked what problem solving skill they deploy when encountering a problem – I imagine you’d hear crickets.
Expert Designed Single Solution Method
First, Unilever hired some really smart mathematicians and physicists to design a new nozzle. They put a lot of effort into the task, but despite all their knowledge, the nozzle came out average. What happened?
Trial, Error, Selection and Variation Method
The company eventually resorted to a different strategy to create a better spray nozzle: Trial, Error, Selection and Variation. In short, science. First, they made 10 nozzles, more or less at random, and tested them. They kept the nozzle that worked best and made 10 new variations on that winning version. This process of progressive trial and error went on for 45 generations, thus creating a super nozzle.
What makes the super nozzle so great? They don’t know exactly, there was nothing scientifically obvious they could identify that made it better than the others; it just was.
This process works just as well in software development, science or business as it does in detergent nozzle development. So when presented with a problem, I identify and solve the problem by trial, error, selection and variation of solutions.
- Identify the problem
- Come up with 2-3 solutions
- Test solutions and take the best performing solutions, create variations and repeat.
Sounds simple right? Well you can apply this to any problem whether it’s for business, technology or your personal life. It’s really the only way to solve any problem. Most people just get caught up in sticking with the first solution, and they don’t complete the cycle.
You can see the byproduct of sticking with the first solution when you walk into a business and there is something massively illogical and you ask “why” and the answer is “well, that’s how it’s always been”.
I like the way Harford ended the talk urging me to step out of my comfort zone, challenge my deepest assumptions, and let the chips fall where they may. In short, don’t get into the weeds or attached to a particular solution. Instead, work the process, the process works. It always has, it always will, it’s science.
Leverage others experience
It is incredibly easy to get lost and caught up in multiple solutions. We all need a second set of eyes from time to time. I have experience that you can leverage. If you don’t use me, use someone else. The point is for you to get your problem solved and questions answered immediately. Set an appointment with me and tell me about your situation so I can help. Click this link to reach out. Something else on your mind? Whatever you need, I’m here. Life is meant to be done together, just reach out.
This post comes from my upcoming book, Modern CTO. Pre-register for a copy here.