Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Garden of Ingenuity

Photo by tobyleah
Despite our frustration at running into limitations on our behavior, those same limitations can be the rich soil that produces an entire garden of ingenuity and innovation.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the engineers back on earth confront a major problem: their astronauts, floating through space in a damaged ship, are breathing too much carbon dioxide. The astronauts are doomed unless the engineers can find a way to improvise a connection between two different air scrubbers.

The scene culminates with a team leader spreading materials out on the table and laying out the problem: You've got to make this (a round filter), fit into the hole for this (a square filter), using nothing but that (the materials in the ship).

Ultimately, the engineers succeed in crafting a solution and relaying the instructions to the astronauts. It's an inspiring moment of ingenuity and teamwork.

In my opinion, the creative solution was made possible because the team leader was very clear about the limits their solution must satisfy. With anything less than absolute clarity about their boundaries, it is doubtful the team would have constructed an adequate solution.

Often, when we are working with a group that is going in circles trying to solve a problem, it is because the solution criteria are not clear. Effective leaders and managers can help teams craft solutions by clearly stating the limits the solution must satisfy.

There are a number of basic solution constraints. They include:

1) Time - when must a solution be delivered?
2) Money/Material - what financial or material resources are available and from what sources? (Often teams can creatively find other sources with which to expand the resource pool.)
3) People - who can be involved in the solution?

Solution Criteria:

4) What must the solution accomplish to be satisfactory? (Reduce carbon dioxide levels!)
5) How long must the solution last? (Long enough to return them to earth.)
6) Who needs to give their approval to execute the solution? (Managers can often serve their teams by getting approval limitations before problem-solving begins.)

When made clear, limits and constraints on problem solving can produce creativity. Next time you're problem solving with a team, help everyone to clearly define the playing field and desired outcomes, then free the group to optimize results.

For more on solution-focused leadership, read: Where Are Your Eyes?

David M. Dye

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Twitter: @davidmdye
David shares twenty years experience teaching, coaching, leading, and managing in youth service, education advocacy, city governance, and faith-based nonprofits. He currently serves as Chief Operating Officer for Colorado UpLift and enjoys helping others discover and realize their own potential.

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