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Stumped By A Huge, Complex Problem? Here’s Exactly Where To Start

The teams at UTC that build spacesuits and develop elevator technology explain what to do when you’re paralyzed by big, tough problems.

Where do we even begin? It’s a pretty common thought when teams face complicated problems. Any first move appears likely to be the wrong one, so paralysis swiftly settles in.

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United Technologies Corporation (UTC) has had more than its share of practice getting past this common obstacle. UTC’s scientists, engineers, and designers have developed innovative solutions to extraordinarily complex challenges, like directing the flow of some 3 million pilgrims on the Hajj and devising an air-ventilation system to protect Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

At the soon-to-open Digital Accelerator that UTC’s digital division, UT Digital, is setting up in the fast-developing business quarter of DUMBO, Brooklyn, Fast Company Innovation Festival attendees got a glimpse last week  into some of UTC’s design-thinking methods. Here’s one of them.

Breaking Huge Problems Into Parts

Antoine Veliz, Head of Design at UT Digital. explained that his teams are careful about how they define the types of problems they tackle. That crucial first step requires isolating three elements:

  1. The challenge. For UTC to take a stab at it, says Veliz, the challenge “has to be vital,” meaning it needs to deal with “things that enable us to live the way we do.” For example, Veliz cites the issue of food waste, estimating that 40–50% of all food that’s produced in the U.S. is thrown out.
  2. The system. The challenge posed by food waste reflects what Veliz calls a “complex system filled with independent actors” like farmers, coolers, pickers, and transporters. “They’re not thinking about the rest of the system” when they make their own decisions,” he says.
  3. The constraints. For UTC, a challenge’s “constraints” typically involve “the physics of the issue,” as Veliz puts it. In the case of food waste, that might mean “time, temperature, travel, and taste,” he explains.

Steve Serra, VP of Product and Innovation at UT Digital, helps a team brainstorm adjectives to describe unlabeled images of three objects, in a design-thinking exercise meant as a warm-up to creative problem-solving. [Photo: Jonah Rosenberg]
Of course, not every team at every company will face problems of the same type or magnitude that UTC often does. But it can still be helpful to start by teasing out a definition addressing the impact of the issue: why it’s important to solve it in the first place, the complexity of the system from which it arises, and the constraints that any solution will need to account for.

Turning Constraints Into Opportunities

When designing spacesuits, UTC engineers realized that they could use the way water behaves in space–a constraint–as part of the insulation system to protect and regulate the temperature of astronauts’ bodies, says Veliz. You don’t have to be an aerospace engineer to take a similar approach.

Veliz’s colleague Steve Serra, VP of Product and Innovation at UT Digital, proposed a simple brainstorming exercise to begin reframing constraints as opportunities. Handing out a sheet with three unlabeled, side-by-side images on it–they looked like elevator doors, a metal beer keg, and a speaker system, respectively–Serra asked participants to brainstorm as many adjectives for those objects as possible. Immediately, a list began taking shape: “hard,” “cold,” “rectangular,” “transportable,” “mechanical,” “heavy,” “white,” “porous,” “reusable.”

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UTC believes in reframing constraints as opportunities and in repurposing existing solutions wherever possible, rather than starting from scratch. [Photo: Jonah Rosenberg]
This brainstorm has two functions, Veliz explained afterward. First, “it brings people together” around the same challenge, acting not just as an icebreaker but as a way to direct everyone’s thinking toward a common task. Second, it quickly generates a storehouse of “available words to use when describing ideas” for solving the challenge itself.

It doesn’t really matter what images jump-start the brainstorm or whether they have much bearing on the problem you’re working on; the point is just to get everyone “thinking in a very flexible way,” Veliz says. “We want to make sure teams spend time diverging a bit and don’t arrive at a solution too soon.”

With this done, returning to confront the original problem should feel a little less daunting. But Veliz offers three more bits of advice to get cracking:

  1. Find common points of interest among stakeholders. Where does the need for the Sistine frescoes to be protected from fast-moving air (which can act as a “slow-motion sandpaper,” says Veliz) overlap with the need to preserve quiet in a church setting?
  2. Gain as much objectivity as you can by trying on different perspectives. How might a farmer see or experience one aspect of the food-waste problem differently than a transporter would?
  3. Find new uses for existing ideas, material, and people. You don’t always need to start from scratch. Space is already cold, so if you want to control dampness, maybe you don’t need to build a freezer.

Now, instead of any first move appearing potentially wrong, they can all look potentially right.

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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