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

Exploiting Failed Ideas

by

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.
Senator Carter Glass (Democrat of Virginia) and Representative Henry B. Steagall (Democrat, Alabama Third), the co-sponsors of the Glass-Steagall Act

Senator Carter Glass (Democrat of Virginia) and Representative Henry B. Steagall (Democrat, Alabama Third), the co-sponsors of the Glass-Steagall Act, also known as the Banking Act of 1933. It was this law that established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which to this day insures deposits at U.S. banking institutions. This insurance mechanism is generally regarded as having prevented bank runs, which were common in the years prior to the adoption of Glass-Steagall, and in most if not all economic panics in the decades prior to the Great Depression. It was an examination of these panics and the Depression, and their causes, that led to the idea of deposit insurance as a means of breaking the feedback loop that had been intensifying economic slowdowns. Other portions of Glass-Steagall, notably those limiting the activities that insured institutions were permitted to undertake, were repealed in 1999. Within eight years of that repeal, the U.S. economy experienced its most intense contraction since the passage of Glass-Steagall, a contraction from which it and the world have not yet recovered. It's possible — even likely — that the repeal of Glass-Steagall is a failed idea. Perhaps the recently enacted Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is a step toward harvesting some learning from that error. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

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.

About failure
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?
About new ideas
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?
About costs
How expensive is exploring this idea? How can we make exploration cheaper? Can we pilot it? How expensive would it be to implement?
About completeness
What parts of the problem would this idea resolve? What parts of the problem would remain? Why?
About effectiveness
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? Go to top Top  Next issue: On Being the Canary  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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