That is the question every organization asks itself at one time or another. 

Finding the right answer is often times the real challenge.

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) business climates require us to change.

The change comes in many forms.  We have several proven toolsets to focus the efforts and help us make the right changes. 

  • Lean makes us fast and flexible
  • Traditional Problem Solving helps us eliminate root causes
  • Agile gives us multiple iterations of increasingly useful fixes.
  • Value creation, repurposing and deliverystrategies helps us define our impact
  • Market expansion and segmentation help us cater to customer niches
  • Business and Process reengineering help us stick to the knitting.
  • Innovation Centers helps us pioneer the next new thing
  • Right Sizing  and Outsourcing help usmake lemonade out of lemons
  • Employee Value Propositions help us keep the best and brightest.

But with all these choices, which one is right for my organization?

At MU Healthcare, where I work, most of the organization focuses on prescribing present solutions to meet the pressing needs of our patients.  For instance, our nurses employ clinically proven best practices to address the specific problems of our patients with breast cancer.  At the same time, another part of the organization conducts research seeking breakthroughs which will eliminate this type of cancer altogether. 

So, while one wing of the hospital applies solutions to existing problems, another wing explores ways to eliminate problems

Note that both wings use defined processes.  Both take time and both benefit from sound planning and good execution.  Both can be tactical or strategic, elaborate or simple.  Both require creativity and assessment.  

In my experience, most business leaders focus on overcoming the obstacles which prevent them from executing their corporate strategy.  These CEOs concentrate talent and energy to solve problems.  Along the way they use leaner, more systemic and less disruptive approaches to carry out the business mandate despite the storm.   In contrast, there are handful of companies who chose instead to reinvent themselves.  These more aggressive organizations are able to adapt faster not by eliminating the problems, but instead by seeking opportunities. 

So which is better?  Adapt in the present or Evolve for the future?

You might be tempted to argue this is a distinction without a difference, or that I am playing with semantics.   After all, both problem solving and opportunity seeking offer solutions.  I used to not differentiate the two for this very reason.  My argument appealed to the yen/yang symbol with its Crisis/Opportunity motif.  Clearly, as one side of the symbol takes precedence the other side is minimized but they are both still present and the process is cyclical. 

But, and here is why this matters, each approach uses its own logic.  As smart as we are, we seem unable to use adaptation logic to creatively evolve.  The reason they are mutually exclusive in this way is that our built in problem solving methodology requires us to think convergently while the exploration required to evolve demands us to think divergently.

The key to evolution in an ever changing VUCA world is in finding a new way to imagine the next new thing, and then with that new vision driving us, convergently work towards it.    This approach of imagination before implementation is rare.  We prefer to tweak our way forward one adaptation at a time. 

In fact, new inspired alternatives may not solve the current problem and thus may be discarded out of hand as not practical or helpful.  But as conditions change, solving the problems within the current approach can quickly lose their significance or relevance too.

To complicate matters, we also know that our human sensitivity to threat most naturally focuses on immediate problems.  Combine this with our pattern defaulting brains.  We are all locked into well- worn channels of thought – sometimes at the expense of seeing radical alternatives and opportunities.

I remember hearing an illustration defining the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.  In the story a rowboat is leaking.  Efficiency is defined as getting really good at bailing out the water as it comes in.  Effectiveness is defined by plugging the hole.  In this scenario, both bailing and plugging are problem solving approaches we might adopt if we insist on travelling by a leaky boat.  Contrast that with swimming or flying or taking a land route.  These were never considered in the scenario.  This thinking “outside the boat” is the essence of divergent or what Dr. Edward deBono calls “Lateral Thinking.”

Take another example.  Suppose my car’s radiator is busted a few miles short of my destination. I can stand beside my car fixing it (solving the problem) or find an alternative way to arrive at my destination – like hitchhiking.  There are pros and cons to both approaches.  One persists in the initial approach, the other takes an alternate approach – both have a good chance of getting me to my destination. 

My choice whether to “repair” or “hitch” depends on the consequences each offers.  I will favor the strategy that best meets my present need.  How important is my arrival at my destination?  Is getting to my destination fast more important than having my car drivable?  Is a potential spouse waiting at the altar or does the car show last all week long?

This calculation of priorities and impacts is what deBono Thinking Systems Six Value Medals value scan accomplishes.  I scan and weigh my values against one another and choose the outcome that is most meaningful and relevant to me.  As I cycle through the six areas of impact, my strategies shift.  Each time I reframe my purpose, I find new solutions beyond my present options.

Traditional Problem Solving techniques focus on overcoming obstacles that prevent me from continuing in my present approach – to drive my car to my destination.

Lateral Thinking techniques focus on seeking different ways to achieve my goal – to arrive at my destination.

Problem solving keeps us moving forward in the present track.  Lateral shifts help us find new tracks.  Just to push the analogy a bit further.  I’m sure that you can imagine a dozen other ways to get to the destination.  These other ways are all variations on a theme of me arriving “there.” Let’s diverge a bit.  What if instead of finding ways to get there, I start searching for ways for it to arrive “here?” With that shift in focus I have jumped mental tracks.  My previous “solutions” for arrival no longer apply.  Instead, by transforming the problem in my mind, I change not only the nature of the problem but its scope and the value of it new options.

The choice between overcoming obstacles within the current pattern vs. reaching my destination by shifting to a different pattern is rarely asked up front.  Do we stay the course or abandon it is a critical question because the answer to that question determines which methodology I use next.  In short, seeking alternatives changes the landscape and provides new opportunities of attack.  

Perception broadening tools such as de Bono Thinking Systems Power Of Perception prompts and alternative finding tools like those found in de bono Thinking Systems Lateral Thinking toolset are the thinking skills best suited to achieve these kinds of mental breakthroughs

In our present VUCA environment, companies feel the need for speed.  What we have typically done to survive is to adopt an agile approach of speedy adaptation.  But, market changes occur and financial situations shift so fast that our traditional problem solving can become both obsolete & irrelevant before we get its anticipated pay off.

Problem solving alone taxes the organization.  The tax is paid in the lost opportunities to use those same resources in a game changing new way.

Because the present is so malleable, companies that divergently evolve to pursue future opportunities will outperform those who adaptively problem solve in the present. So, how do companies successfully evolve and create opportunities for continued and future success?  They provide the power tools and processes to help their organization evolve to out think its competition.