What’s the biggest obstacle to solving any problem ?

How about, the one that isn’t really there ?

This short blog is about how we make life difficult for ourselves and what we can do about it.

We can usually find solutions quite easily to most of the problems that we meet. We only have to decide which one is best. This is only really difficult for us when there is some obstacle – cost, people, time, difficulty, policies – that prevents taking action or will make the situation worse.

We usually assume that the obstacles are real and must think creatively to find a way around them. The common mistake is in fact to accept that an obstacle is real without testing our assumptions.

An example of this was a company that had never made deliveries on a Thursday but nobody in the company knew why. Finally an enterprising manager tracked down an elderly former employee who explained that it was the day they rested the horse.

More recently, I dealt with a company that refused to sell a product because the business manager believed that it would breach an exclusivity contract with a major customer. It turned out that neither company could find a copy of the contract; nobody had ever seen it and the customer had no objection anyway.

The mere belief that the obstacle was too large had prevented any attempt to address it.

Here’s the best way to deal with these barriers to action.
Challenge the assumption that the obstacle exists.

A good tool for this is the 5 Whys approach that I mentioned in my previous article.
Keep asking Why? or Why Not? until you get to the core of the obstacle.
You will then know if it’s real and, if it is, the objections that your solution must address.

List every assumption that’s in the way of action:

  •  It’s impossible because of time and cost
  •  It goes against the rules
  • People will behave in a certain way

It doesn’t matter if the assumption appears true beyond doubt; test it.
You will be surprised how many assumptions are limits that you’ve imposed yourself.

Once the false assumptions are out of the way, you will find lots of new solutions.

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please Contact Me and also receive my report “Ten Practical Tips to Find Original Answers to Any Business Problem”.


Here are some more thoughts on the importance of asking good questions.

There are two important secrets to solving any problem :

You won’t have a permanent solution unless you deal with the real cause rather than apply sticking plaster solutions to its effects. You must also ask the right questions. You may have heard of the 5 Whys approach to solving a problem. This is a simple but powerful technique because it forces you to think more deeply and not stop at the obvious reason.

In case you’re not familiar with the method, you ask Why the problem exists and repeat the question until you reach the real cause. The number isn’t fixed but asking the question five times will usually provide the insight that you need unless the problem is very complex.

Why have we lost this customer ?
The delivery was late. Why ?
The product could not be tested before despatch. Why ?
The test equipment required could not be used because its heating oil did not arrive. Why ?
The supplier had not been paid for the previous delivery. Why ?
We only pay suppliers on the first Thursday of the month

The unexpected real reason for the lost customer was the company’s policy to ignore suppliers’ payment terms in favour of its own.

Before starting your Why? questions, however, I suggest that you first ask When ?

When did the problem first occur ? Check what took place before the problem began

New methods ? New materials ? A breakdown ? Equipment serviced ? New supplier ?

When does the problem occur ? Look for activities that take place at the same time as the problem.

Monday mornings ? Certain individuals present ? Certain raw materials used ? Certain operations performed ?

These first two questions are obvious but there’s a third that’s particularly satisfying when you follow the answer to a conclusion.

How often does the problem occur ? You’re looking for “something” that happens at the same frequency as the problem. My example involves a manufacturing problem but I’ll try and keep the facts as general as possible.

A good clue that such a cause exists is a process that needs continuous adjustments for no reason.

An excellent example is a company that I helped to investigate a quality problem with a strange twenty minute cycle. The process would be stable for five minutes, then drift for fifteen minutes before returning to normal.

It was the result of an economy measure earlier in the process. The cause was a stirrer in a holding tank containing a mixture like wall-paper paste. It only operated for five minutes at a time. When it stopped, the air bubbles rose to the top. Anyone who has ever drunk a milkshake knows how it changes when sucked through a straw.

The problem was magnified when operators adjusted the equipment as a result of quality control tests. By the time they could check the product again, paste from a different stage of the start-stop cycle had arrived and needed an opposite adjustment.

The answer was simply to run the stirrer slowly but continuously

In summary,

Ask the When? questions :

  • When did the problem first occur ?
  • When does the problem occur ?
  • How often does the problem occur ?

They provide information to focus your search for the cause of the problem. Then use the powerful Why? questions

If you’re concerned with quality management, this story illustrates several additional points

  • Treat specifications as targets, not goal-posts.
  • If you can eliminate a source of variation at no cost, do it.
  • Patterns can be more useful to your investigations than the numbers they represent.
  • Changes may have effects that are out of proportion to their size.

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please Contact Me and also receive my report Ten Practical Tips to Find Original Answers to Any Business Problem


Wouldn’t life be easy if you had all the information you need to make decisions and plenty of time to compare your options? In real life, we don’t usually have either and our decisions are a best guess based on our experience. A fortunate few have well-honed intuition and can make fast decisions reliably. Other may simply be over-confident and likely to be wrong.
So what can we do when we don’t have the luxuries of knowledge and time?

Here are seven questions to ask yourself that will tell you what to do when you can’t decide:

Question 1

I prefer one of my alternatives but I’m not sure. What would I do if it was removed?

If you’re immediately happy with another alternative, you should still work through the other questions before making a final decision. If not, look harder and more widely for new alternatives. Do alternatives really exclude each other? Can you combine them? The point of the question is to force you to search for more and less obvious options.

Question 2

What if my preferred alternative has a seriously flaw?

Ask yourself what could go wrong. How would you know? What could you do? How could you prevent it?
Ask the same questions for your other options.

At the heart of every seriously wrong decision is failing to ask this question through over-confidence or the mistaken belief that it’s “negative”. What’s negative about looking at what could go wrong in the future and planning for it?

Question 3

What can I do to quickly/cheaply/easily test my alternatives?

This question also forces you think more critically. If it isn’t possible to test an option, could this be a warning that it carries a high risk? The question enables you to identify both the points of no return and crossroads where you can still change direction. It also starts the planning of actions.

Question 4

What would you advise your best friend/a colleague to do?

This innocent question is very powerful because it removes distractions that prevent a decision. When we make decisions, there is often competition between our logical and emotional reasons. The emotional reasons are personal to us as individuals with our own beliefs, experiences and relationships. As a result their influence can be given much more importance than it deserves. Separating ourselves from the problem, we concentrate on the real issues, not the short term emotional impact of the decision.

Question 5

If you left, what would your replacement do in this situation?

I like this question because you can imagine anyone you want in this role and how they would tackle the problem. You not only separate yourself from it to concentrate on the real issues; the different viewpoint will deliver new insights and options.

Question 6

What would I do if I replaced somebody who had made this decision?

This forces you to look critically at the possible decisions from another viewpoint
Was the decision brilliant? obvious? wrong ? high risk?
This tests not only whether the decision is right but your confidence and if you can justify it.

Question 7

Next week/next month/next year, what would make you either change direction or congratulate yourself?

Even the best decision is based on our knowledge and prediction at the time. The business environment, however, is always changing.

If we stop treating decisions as permanent and instead plan what would make us change direction, we can be more inventive with our options, more far sighted than other competitors, faster and more flexible in our response to change.

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please Contact Me via the link below and also receive my report “Ten Practical Tips to Find Original Answers to Any Business Problem”.


SeminarAs we all know, the secret to solving any problem is asking the right question. I’ve been wondering why we often find this difficult and it reminded me of an earlier blog that we’re all naturally creative until education and experience teach us not to be. Children are curious and ask a lot of questions. In doing so, they often reveal a different way to look at the situation.

Over the next two or three blogs I’m going to write about how the way we ask questions is a valuable resource that enables us to find new answers to any problem. The most difficult question to answer, however, is the one you didn’t ask so I’m going to address this first.

So why don’t we ask questions ? I’m going to guess that the most common reason is Fear. We don’t want to look foolish in front of our customers or fellow professionals by asking a question when we should already know the answer. Is this fear justified ? Think back to the last time you attended an event and somebody in the audience actually raised his hand and asked a question.

  • Did you already know the answer ? If so did you think any less of him for asking ?
  • Were you curious about the answer ? If so, did you gain knowledge because he asked
  • Were you hoping that somebody would ask that question ? That “somebody” got the credit that could have been yours
  • Did you discover that what you “knew” was wrong ? If he hadn’t asked, you would still be wrong

If we ask a question, we may feel that we look foolish for a couple of minutes but we will now have an answer. If we don’t ask it, that feeling will come afterward when we feel bad that we threw away the opportunity to find an answer.

So here are a few tips to make sure that you get the most out of any presentation and look good to the rest of the audience:

  • Decide from the start that you will ask a question and make a note of anything you would like to know more about. This will keep you alert and engaged with the presentation
  • Remember that everybody, even the speaker, wants a question. Nobody enjoys that embarrassing silence at the end of the talk waiting for somebody brave enough to go first. That can be you.
  • Ask a question that will expand everyone’s knowledge, not demonstrate your own. An interesting question gives the speaker an opportunity to be natural. It’s what the audience will remember, including your contribution.
  • If you can, ask a “What if?” question. It won’t have an obvious answer and the question identifies you as thoughtful and imaginative.
  • Give the speaker your contact details afterward. You’ve probably seeded some new thoughts in his mind and he will want to discuss them with you.

If you follow these few simple rules, you will raise your profile as a thought leader and expert, resulting in more and better contacts with a growing reputation to justify your charges.

In my next blog I’ll discuss the questions to ask that enable you to solve problems when your existing knowledge and experience haven’t worked.

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please contact me via the link below and also receive my report “Ten Practical Tips to Find Original Answers to Any Business Problem”.

PatentOne of the most difficult questions for a product development consultant is “Should I apply for a patent ?”. A straight answer is difficult because there are two completely opposite patent myths.

Myth #1 : Patents are valuable because you have a monopoly for your product
Myth #2 : Less than 1% of patents make any money for the inventor

My personal view is that it usually doesn’t matter. A successful new product depends on understanding your customers and markets. The novelty of your product isn’t important unless it’s the only way to solve their problems. Customers buy solutions not patents.

There are some good reasons that you might want a patent :

  • You have the right to exclude others from making, using or selling what your patent claims
  • It’s easier to raise finance if you can demonstrate a barrier to competition
  • You have the opportunity to sell licences to use your invention
  • Products based on patented inventions sometimes have taxation advantages

There are also reasons that a patent may not be worth the effort:

  • It’s expensive, involving for example search costs, application and renewal fees
  • It takes typically one man-year of work before you can make an application
  • It can delay the work to turn the invention into a product that you can sell
  • You have to disclose details that are useful to competitors
  • Your application may be opposed and require extra work to prove your claim
  • You must enforce the patent yourself if you find an infringement = time and expense

Here are some thoughts to help you decide whether a patent is right for you and some hints if you go ahead:

  • Investigate potential markets. If they don’t exist, the patent has no purpose.
  • Search National and International databases for previous similar inventions.
  • Use as many different descriptions as you can think of.
  • Compare your invention with what is already published. Is it a completely new idea or an obvious improvement of an existing invention ? This exercise also protects you from infringing somebody else’s patent
  • Is your invention the best way to solve the problem ? If not, why patent it
  • Is there an easy way around your own invention to solve the problem ? If Yes, a competitor will find it
  • Can you easily identify infringement ? Do you have the resources to take action ?

If you cannot enforce a patent, it is of little use to you.

  • Do you require a large amount of finance ? A patent may show potential investors that you will face little competition. An application for the patent will not.
  • Are there already competitors with patents ? Find a gap in their patent cover and make it yours. The defensive patent helps your negotiating position if they accuse you of infringement
  • Are there taxation advantages for products based on patents ? The financial advantages might significantly outweigh the costs

A patent cannot substitute for understanding your market and designing products that meet the customer needs. If it is not obvious that a patent is necessary or valuable, it probably isn’t.

If you are not applying for a patent, experiment with your product and early customers to identify the features that they value and will pay for. You will be able to enter the larger market more quickly and with more confidence of success.

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please contact me via the link below and also receive my report “Ten practical tips to find original answers to any business problem”.

Any marketing textbook will tell you that you can grow your profits by finding new customers for your existing products. There are good reasons why this represents an ideal balance of reward v risk.

Business Development(1) You can usually increase your prices – you’re solving new problems and your products will therefore have a new value.

(2) You don’t have to spend time developing new products – you may even be able to save costs by removing features that your new customers will not require.

(3) You don’t have to worry about your normal competitors – they’re too busy trying to maintain their existing business in the old market.

So how do you find these new customers ? Here’s the secret.

In most companies the signs pointing to new opportunities hiding in their own records. You just have to recognise them.

You’re looking for surprises. They’re very important because they tell you that an assumption you hold about your business is wrong. When you challenge your assumptions, you will find new opportunities and may even discover completely new business models.

The obvious example of a significant surprise is the unexpected customer. If he’s using the product for its normal purpose, you’ve discovered a new market that you can exploit immediately. Your sales department can easily identify similar customers.

The perfect customer will be using your product for an unexpected purpose. This is ideal because it probably means that your product has a unique combination of features that meet his requirement. It will be much more difficult for your competitors to follow you.

So how can you improve the chances that you will recognise these opportunities ? The first step is to start looking for them. Is there a pattern ? Contact the customers; ask why they chose your products. What features are most important to them ? How could you improve your products ? Make this a procedure for all unexpected customers.

Be curious. Don’t ignore surprises but see if they have anything to teach you.

  • Don’t be too focussed on your competitors. Concentrate instead on looking for opportunities.
  • You can perform a lot of research at low cost.
  • Read trade journals appropriate to your customers and industries that overlap your own.
  • You’re looking for news and developments. Order back copies.

In particular, encourage ideas from new employees. It will not only make them feel valued but they will have different experiences from your established team and can offer new insights.

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please contact me via the link below and also receive my report “Ten practical tips to find original answers to any business problem”.


I’d like to tell you about a long discussion over some coffee with a regular and usually successful inventor. He had ended development of a promising new product because his company had been unable to market it to the organisation that was by far the largest potential customer..

For obvious reasons, I can’t reveal the details other than telling you that it was a technical solution to a problem involving Health Care. He had been fighting opposition in the Health Care system that can either make an innovative new product a success, or kill it

Innovation in Health Care is particularly difficult because there are powerful forces at work

For example :

  • Practitioners with personal and financial interests in treatments that might be replaced
  • Financial issues – who will fund its development ? Is the innovation cost-effective ?
  • Accountability – demands that innovative treatments must be effective and safe, and regulators that err on the side of caution
  • Customers (Patients)asked to accept new treatments that benefit only the surgeon

The subject of the Health Care industry is too large to deal with here. There are also huge differences between the UK where I live and the USA. If you’re actually considering this market I suggest checking out articles like this one by Regina Herzlinger at Harvard Business School

Although the product offered savings and security of supply to the Health service as a whole, with hindsight, it’s possible to understand why the invention met such resistance :

  • It was an alternative to a technique that surgeons were trained in. They personally didn’t normally experience a problem and had little incentive to change
  • Their existing technique could be used in situations when the invention might fail
  • It made little difference to the patient’s experience other than the operation scar might be less visible than normal

It wasn’t difficult for them to argue against having any involvement with the invention
It demonstrates why you must ask an additional question before you invest significant time or money in developing an innovative new product :

Does it offer a really significant advantage over the existing solution ?
Does it offer a significant advantage to whoever is making the decisions ?

In my view a cost saving alone isn’t enough unless it’s so large that the market can’t ignore it and the existing players cannot match it. If there is no significant advantage, you must either change the product or look for another market.

Taking this particular invention as an example :

  • If it requires less skill, some treatments could be performed by nurses rather than surgeons
  • It could enable more treatment of injuries or wounds before removal to hospital
  • Reduced scarring would be of interest for cosmetic, if not general surgery
  • It could be of interest to vetinary surgeons who could sell the new method to owners
  • The technology has possible non-medical applications

Sadly, the inventor is no longer involved with the business and we won’t be able to explore these possibilities. I’ve presented them though because the story shows four points that are vital for successful product development :

  • Uncover the real needs of your customers
  • Understand who will make the real decisions
  • Ensure that your new product offers real advantages for them
  • Be prepared to seek new opportunities for your product

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please contact me via the link below and also receive my report “Ten practical tips to find original answers to any business problem”.

Have you ever made a careful decision, turned it into a workable plan and still failed to achieve the result you wanted ? Maybe you even talked about trying Plan B.

Poor Plan B always gets a negative press. We regard it as a sign of failure or make jokes about it. If we do this, we’re missing the point that it has a very important part to play in our decision making, planning and execution.

I first stumbled across this fact years ago when I was planning some product development trials with a partner in the middle of Europe. As well as the experiments, the work involved transporting the equipment and materials across several customs borders. I used to find any customer visit very stressful and would actually be physically ill the night before. This would be one of the most difficult challenges that I’d faced.

My solution was to plan for what could wrong using a simple three step process :

  • What’s the worst possible thing that could go wrong ?
  • If this happens, what can I do about it ?
  • What can I do to prevent it ?

I then looked at the second worst thing and so on…

By the time I’d gone around the loop twenty times, all that remained were problems that could be easily dealt with or were so unlikely that they could be ignored.

This Plan B thinking produced a number of positive results:

  • I improved the plan to reduce the risk of problems
  • I had mentally rehearsed my actions to deal with any problems so that I was able to instantly react to a couple that couldn’t be prevented
  • My new confidence meant that it was the most enjoyable development trial that I had ever conducted

I strongly recommend a very similar approach as the final step before any decision that could have a significant impact on a business – however attractive the forecast may be:

  •  What are the worst possible consequences if the decision is incorrect ?
  •  How likely is the decision to be incorrect ?
  •  Are the consequences and the risk acceptable ?
  •  If not, what can we do to reduce them to an acceptable level ?

In my view, the failure to ask these questions in time to modify the plan is a major cause of delays and increased costs. It’s understable that teams may be reluctant to question an outstanding option that, for example, forecasts telephone number profits. The leader must therefore make clear that this examination isn’t negative or a lack of confidence – it’s ensuring that risks are controlled and that plans are protected from unexpected obstacles and cost or time over-runs

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please contact me via the link below and also receive my report Ten practical tips to find original answers to any business problem”.

We all make hundreds of decisions every day.

None of us gets them all right and, fortunately, the decisions we get wrong aren’t usually life-changing. If we’re rational about it, we learn from our mistakes and move on.

It would be great if we could make the right decision every time but reality says that we won’t.

We don’t have the time to get perfect information and I’d even go as far as saying that the wealth of it on the Internet can make it more difficult to take clear decisions within deadlines. Not all of the information is reliable, opinions and facts can be confused, and when do you stop looking ?

If other people are involved, of course, we can never know for sure what they really want or how hard they will fight to get it. In fact, I reckon that if we get two decisions out of three correct we’re doing pretty well. We just have to make sure that they include the ones that are really important to us. There are plenty of systems available to improve the odds. I like my clients to first become familiar with thinking creatively so that they have more options to decide between.

I’d like to relate a story to illustrate the difference between wrong decisions and bad decisions. Wrong decisions are the ones that we take when we’ve looked at all the options, decided what’s best and it just hasn’t worked out. For example, we researched a car, bought from a reputable dealer, found it great to drive but a few hundred miles later the transmission failed. A bad decision would be cancelling the breakdown insurance.

A few years ago, a company I was involved with was closing its manufacturing business in the USA.

Among the equipment was a European-built machine that was perfect to meet the requirements of its European subsidiary. The project manager involved estimated that the cost of the team of engineers for three weeks to dismantle the equipment, the crane hire and replacement of all the electrical equipment would be about $200 000 – about the same as a new machine. It was therefore auctioned as a fire sale and raised $12 000.

He knew that I had personally installed and commissioned the equipped. If he had thought to ask, I could have told him that three of us had installed it over a weekend with the aid of a fork-lift truck and some skates. Conversion of the electrics to European specification involved flicking a switch in the control cabinet.

At the heart of most bad decisions, is a failure to ask some key questions :

  • What are the worst possible consequences if the decision is incorrect ?
  • How likely is the decision to be incorrect ?
  • Are the consequences and the risk acceptable ?
  • If not, what can we do to reduce them to an acceptable level ?

As the story above illustrates, however, there is another question that should be asked right at the start of any decision making process :

  • What are the facts and where is the most reliable source ?

Don’t let over-confidence lead you into making this mistake

If you would like to discuss this subject further, please contact me via the link below and also receive my report Ten practical tips to find original answers to any business problem”.

If you’re looking for new product ideas, do you visit trade shows? I always recommend attending shows that are outside your normal experience, but where you can still understand the subject. Made an unexpected discovery this week – if you’re responsible for marketing, it’s sometimes worth attending a show even when you have absolutely no interest in the subject.

Why would you do this? Because you will experience for yourself how it feels when marketing is directed AT a potential customer who is not ready to buy

I carried out this exercise myself recently to prepare for a show. It provided some surprises that were in tune with some comments about marketing by Grant Leboff that I’d just heard. Some of the observations were predictable and probably familiar to you. If I couldn’t understand what the company did and I couldn’t learn anything without talking to the representative, I moved on. I also found that I didn’t stay if I’d eaten a sweet from a bowl – Guilt perhaps?

I avoided stands where the exhibitors were bored or too busy with their notepads to notice me

I did usually watch a video for a couple of minutes if one was playing

What I did notice was that nearly all the stands highlighted the products and their features. Very few told me why I should care. Only a handful of representatives spent time explaining products when I wasn’t a potential customer and didn’t have an immediate client that would be interested.

The vast majority of exhibitors had failed to realise that marketing has moved on. Their brochures and displays are no longer the only source of information for their products. Potential customers can now research the companies before attending the exhibition. They will certainly research the products afterward before making their purchasing decisions – increasingly via the social media.

At any time, only about 3% of your potential customers are actively looking for a product or service like yours. The information and discussions at a typical trade show might also reach a few others that are ready to purchase but lack an immediate reason. If you are an exhibitor you can engage with a much larger pool by recognising the role of interested visitors who can influence via the social media platforms. Their support will be determined by the value of the information that you freely provide. It will be squandered if you disregard them because they are not customers themselves.

It’s time to look at your marketing material differently – that it must provide value whether the receiver buys your product or not. Aim to offer new insights to the buyer, instantly building credibility and trust, as well as influencing the criteria behind the eventual purchasing decision.