Do You Know Where The Problem Is?

Cars parkedIf you’re ever in the UK city of Portsmouth and you want to hear an impassioned debate, ask some local residents about car parking.  You’ll be sure to stir up a variety of opinions and ideas.  After you ask the question though, I’d recommend standing back… it’s a very divisive topic!

 

It may help if I explain the context.  Portsmouth is a crowded island city.  It’s heavily populated and surrounded by the sea, only connected to the mainland by road bridges.  This creates an interesting dilemma — the capacity to build anything on the island is limited.  There is only so much land, and short of building underground or on the sea, that capacity is finite.  This creates a real problem when it comes to parking.  The vast majority of houses on the island were built in the 1800s and early 1900s – long before anyone needed to think about driveways or garages.  So parking space is at a real premium, with most residents needing to park their cars on the street.

 

The trouble is that demand outstrips capacity.  There are many more people who want to park on the streets than there are available parking spaces.  This has led to the local council trying various tactics to control parking – from creating (and then suspending) residents-only parking schemes right through to creating a ‘park and ride’ scheme.

 

Time and experience has shown that there is no silver bullet to Portsmouth’s parking problem.  Every intervention that the council makes will inevitably have some affect and some impact – but the impacts that are positive for some stakeholder groups are negative for others.  Often, a problem that is solved in one area creates a brand new problem elsewhere.  This leads to the council being in a perpetual state of confused oscillation: Creating new parking zones, then suspending them, in a desperate attempt to find something that works.

 

The city is a system: The solution isn’t always near the problem. 

In reality, parking problems might be solved with seemingly unrelated solutions.  The city of Portsmouth is a complex system with interwoven dependencies that are difficult for the eye to see.  To solve a parking problem, you have to analyse and crunch the data of the entire holistic system. This requires collaboration and analysis across departments, organisations and areas.  Take the following examples:

 

  • Portsmouth has a large university and a transient student population, who often share houses. This means a house may have 4 or 5 cars, and those cars might only be used occasionally.  So perhaps offering a car-sharing scheme for students, which saves them money whilst still enabling them to use a car might help.
  • There is a trend towards converting older properties into apartments; each apartment owner will probably own a car. So perhaps the town planning regulations should change to control this or at least ensure adequate parking is built on redevelopments (or that the developments are in areas that are sufficiently close to public transport)
  • There are areas of Portsmouth that it is difficult to get to on public transport. By understanding and improving this, the need to own a car may be reduced.
  • Since on-street parking is free, there isn’t a disincentive to park. So perhaps there is an argument for some kind of affordable parking for a guaranteed space

 

The examples above just skim the surface – but the key point is that in order to solve a parking problem, it would be necessary to think in a much broader way.  It would be necessary to examine wider data sets too.  A solution may involve not just the parking department, but also the town planners and maybe even the local university.  It’s important to understand what is driving demand and the complex network of interrelated factors that are causing the problem.  A combination of seemingly unrelated interventions may create a far better outcome than an “obvious” knee-jerk reaction.

 

What this means for business and business analysis 

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Do You Know How Many Customers You’re Throwing Away?

People waiting in an airportI was recently travelling home after a business trip and I checked in to a very small regional airport.  It was around 6:30 p.m. and I had over an hour to kill so I visited the airport’s only café to buy some food.  The café appeared to be part of a regional mid-sized chain, and they had a standard range of food, so I knew exactly what I could expect.  I looked through the menu, made my choice, and went to the counter to order.

 

I gave my order to the cashier who looked a little embarrassed and immediately apologised:

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5 traps that will make “out-of-the-box thinking” fall flat

Cartoon showing a manager encouraging the team to think out of the box, but deliver inside the box

We’ve all been there. A senior leader in an organisation gives a pep-talk about how she or he wants more innovative thinking in the organisation. We need to be brave, bold and ‘think outside of the box’. We need to brainstorm, ignore constraints, and come up with radical new ideas to solve problems and better serve the customer.

 

Out-of-the-box brainstorming can be a great way to encourage innovative and divergent thinking. It can be a great way to come up with completely new ideas in a supportive environment, and a great way to challenge our existing assumptions.

 

Yet I guess everyone reading this will have seen at least one situation where an organisation encouraged out-of-the-box thinking, but then delivered something very much inside the box.

 

Sadly, over time this can lead to real cynicism. You can almost hear that deep, cynical sigh from a co-worker that we’ve got to attend yet another “fluffy out-of-the-box brainstorming” session. It is sad that this happens, and it really doesn’t have to be like this.

 

So — why might efforts to encourage “out-of-the-box thinking” fail? Here are some situations I have observed with some potential ways of avoiding them. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’d love to hear your examples too:

 

Trap 1: We’re not really brainstorming, we’re divining

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