The art of strategically expanding a problem

business-problem-solving

I recently heard an executive attribute his success to learning that sometimes to fix a problem you need to make it bigger. This rattled around in my head for a while and then it started making some kind of sense.

Simply stated, some problems just seem to linger unsolved until someone or something suddenly escalates them to a larger scale. And sometimes this escalation of the problem actually becomes part of the solution.

For example, firefighters will start a controlled downwind backburn designed to eliminate fuel for an oncoming wildfire. In essence, they’re creating more fire to fight a fire. And everyone familiar with oncology knows that this happens every day in cancer treatment. Patients are injected with serums or exposed to radiation that the body may react to as poisons, in expectation that the other components of the injections or radiology are lifesaving.

Not all examples are matters of life-and-death. Looking at the public sector, I had the misfortune of living through “a strategic expansion of a problem” during the Big Dig in Boston which completely restructured the interstate and local roadways in one of the most heavily trafficked urban intersections in the country. The construction work was carried out between 1991 and 2006 and the project concluded on December 31, 2007.  The infrastructure was horrible prior to the project and became even worse for 16 years until the completion. Now? Most Massachusetts milennials only known how delightful it is to travel to the airport from the suburbs while their parents know much different.

History tells me that IT professionals frequently go through similar, albeit less dramatic, choices in their careers. In fact, volumes have been written about whether the deployment of a new technology improved a situation or made it worse in the shorter term.

Virtually every enterprise has gone through a corporate backburn in the migration of email systems. Many of us have been through every permutation of changing between Outlook, Notes, Gmail, etc. And do I even need to mention migrating between Oracle, Salesforce, Sybase, SQL or DB2?

Despite what a vendor sales representative may have told you, the purposeful increase of organizational pain and anguish during the transitional periods these kinds of migrations require are not for the faint at heart.

With the new realization that I have made a career of fighting business wild fires with corporate backburns, I think there are three key components to being successful when attempting to strategically expand the problem:

  1. Communication: Executives often drastically underestimate the amount of communication that must occur with employees and customers during the backburn period. Think about the helpdesk implications before, during and after an email or key database migration. Enterprises are equally as critical about the quality and frequency of communication needed from the vendor during these transitions.
  2. Talent: There are employees who thrive on chaotic change and they become invaluable during this process. Many business hire these firefighting mercenaries specifically for the transition as they quickly get bored with normalcy.
  3. Clients: Customers who have gone through their own corporate backburns tend to be more resilient during your pain period. They understand the current pain for later competitive advantage theory. Unfortunately, you should understand that many other customers will be more conservative about disruption and could get cold feet — if they think their subsequent migration to a competitor will be less painful than the one you’re undergoing.

Have you had a corporate backburn or strategic problem expansion case in your enterprise, successful or otherwise? Comment below.

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