Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 10, Issue 30;   July 28, 2010: Exploiting Failed Ideas

# Exploiting Failed Ideas

When the approach you've been using fails, how do you go about devising Plan B? Or Plan C? Here are some ways to find new approaches by examining failures.

Your team is stuck. The approach you were using has failed, or it can't possibly be finished in time — if ever. A solution is needed yesterday. So you assemble a small group to generate some new options. The most popular method in such situations is brainstorming, and for many of us, it's the only method we know. As good as it is, there are techniques we can use to make brainstorms even more productive. One method works by exploiting failed ideas.

By examining the ideas we've already tried or rejected, we can generate new ideas we might have missed otherwise. And we can do this within the familiar structure of a brainstorming session.

Here's an example. Suppose we have a blown out oil well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, and it's gushing oil all over the ocean. Hey, it could happen. We want to collect all the spilled oil. We've tried burning it, dragging booms behind boats, and skimming it off the surface into supertankers, but nothing has worked.

So we ask, what's fundamentally wrong with these approaches? Actually, it's basic geometry. These methods are all point-oriented — the fire we light burns at a single point, the mouth of the boom loop we drag behind the boats is narrow, as is the prow of the supertanker skimmer. Compared to the surface of the Gulf, these are points, while the oil is spread unevenly over a big part of the ocean surface. To capture material spread over a surface, we need a surface-oriented approach, not a point-oriented approach.

A more effective method might involve tens or hundreds of thousands of small, possibly robotic, skimmers working close enough to mother ships to free them of storage and separation functions. In effect, a fleet of oil-seeking mega-Roombas.

Luckily, the problems you face are probably smaller scale than that. Here are some questions that will generate ideas using what is already known about failures.

Why have the ideas we've tried failed? If we were to try them again, would they fail the same way or would they fail in new ways? What did their failures have in common?
How does this new idea Why have the ideas we've tried
failed? If we were to try
them again, would they
fail the same way?
differ from others we've tried or rejected? If it doesn't differ by much, how can we make it more novel?
How expensive is exploring this idea? How can we make exploration cheaper? Can we pilot it? How expensive would it be to implement?
What parts of the problem would this idea resolve? What parts of the problem would remain? Why?
If we implement this idea would it move us forward? What can we change about this idea to make it even more effective?

You get the idea. Now, if you were to try to exploit failed ideas, and the suggestions above all failed, what else could you do?

Do you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

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## Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

Working Lunches
To save time, or to find a time everyone has free, we sometimes meet during lunch. It seems like a good idea, but there are some hidden costs.
Irrational Self-Interest
When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
Mastering Q and A
The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you and your message.
Meta-Debate at Work
Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
Allocating Airtime: Part II
Much has been said about people who don't get a fair chance to speak at meetings. We've even devised processes intended to more fairly allocate speaking time. What's happening here?

See also Effective Meetings and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

## Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Coming March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
And on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

## Coaching services

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Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
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Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When a project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
Technical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many people experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: