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Problem-solving getting you nowhere? ‘Stop Decorating the Fish.’

stopdecoratingthefish-featEvery business has problems that need solving. We come up with solutions, we implement them, and often find more problems to solve. Is this really progress?

“Stop Decorating The Fish,” By Kristen Cox and Yishai Ashlag, uses a business fable to get you to think about whether you’re solving the right problem in the first place.

Cox, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget for the state of Utah, and Ashlag, senior partner with Goldratt Consulting, weave a tale of government officials and scientists trying to save a declining population of fish in Busyville.

After learning that the number of fish that made it to their breeding grounds was down, they tried all manner of solutions to increase the number of fish that could swim upstream. They fitted a fish with fin extension, which they modified over time; they sprayed the fish with a chemical spray that could hide it from bears, and went so far as to remove bears from the area near the stream, but nothing was working.

Because of the this book’s storytelling approach, we won’t spoil the ending. Let’s just say that the scientists and government officials missed the real problem and had spent their time and resources trying to solve other problems that didn’t make enough of an impact.

The book’s goal is to help you identify the real problem and to avoid coming up with solutions that don’t solve the real problem.

Cox and Ashlag refer to common tactics that organizations use in problem-solving as “the seductive 7,” and they caution against relying on those for quick gratification when the real problem goes unaddressed. Relying on those seven tactics can give the illusion of incremental accomplishment and can even create an impression of problem-solving without having a serious impact.

Core problems tend to stem from capacity or policy constraints, and tend to turn into vicious cycles, the authors say. Challenges tend to lead to pressure to find a solution, which leads to the creation of initiatives that don’t address the core problem, which results in a busier, more complex organization that produces disappointing results, resulting in more challenges.

Cox and Ashlag also provide six case studies that look into ways
organizations have heard the siren call of the seductive 7 while ignoring the core problem.

In one memorable example, a car wash machine business found that it couldn’t sell as many new machines as it wanted to, because it ran out of clients to add. Some clients were replacing old machines, while others waited longer.

The company invested in technology (one element of “the seductive 7”) to make a better car wash
machine, but this didn’t result in
significantly more car wash machine sales.

That’s when company management began to study why some places weren’t buying. They found that when the car wash was run by someone who owned it, it offered a better customer experience and offered the owner a better return on investment, so they were more likely to replace an old machine. But when the car wash not owned by the operator, it was left up to employees who didn’t necessarily want to spend time at the car wash, resulting in a negative experience and less car wash business, and a lower likelihood of machine replacement.

The company devised a strategy of making operating a car wash easier, and reversed its fortunes.

Written succinctly, and accompanied by delightful illustrations, “Stop Decorating the Fish” is a book you can read in an afternoon. How long it takes you to apply the book’s central lesson is up to you.

Stop Decorating the Fish

Which Problems To Ignore and Which Problems Really Matter

By Kristen Cox and Yishai Ashlag

North River Press. 106 pages. $15.


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