If 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
As companies grow into mid-sized and large enterprises, they face similar issues. In fact, the example above might have resonated as you read it. Many commercial organisations also face issues where there are stakeholders with very different views about a problem, where there are complex dependencies and where there are limited resources available to solve the problem.
When these thorny issues surface, it is very easy to frame the problem too narrowly, rather than taking a holistic view. Perhaps sales are declining, so we decide to slash prices. But has that really solved the problem? In fact, did we ever really know what the problem was?
In order to nail problems like this, organisations need to analyse and synthesise the various complex structured and unstructured bits of information, insight and data that exist in their organisation. It’s important to analyse the situation, uncover the problems and understand and test the dependencies between them. This places an important focus on business analysis and analytics capabilities. Building on our example above, if sales are declining it’s important to ask why. There could be many reasons:
- A competitor has slashed prices. So do we do the same? Or do we change our advertising to focus on differentiation.
- The market has changed and demand has dropped generally. So do we continue to chase a share of a decreasing market? Or use this insight to shift our focus to innovation and new product development.
- Our key sales-people have left or don’t feel motivated. In which case our problem may be in leadership, organisational structure or reward a mechanism, which is a very different problem!
- We aren’t delivering our products fast enough. So we need to enhance our processes.
Again, these examples just skim the surface. Yet just by exposing and discussing them we move away from the temptation to take a compartmentalised and knee-jerk reaction to slash prices.
In reality, it might be impossible to know exactly which of these issues we should address, or even which of them would be most effective if they were addressed. Solving problems may require a series of interventions, projects or experimental changes. By measuring the effect of these interventions or projects, we can ensure we are pushing in the right direction and take quick corrective action where necessary.
In summary: Problem solving is hard. It’s important to widen the way problems are framed and consider the situation holistically. Good quality business analysis and analytics are key!
What are your thoughts on analysing problems and related dependencies? Do you have a related story or comment? I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to add a comment below.
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This post was brought to you by IBM for Midsize Business and opinions are my own. To read more on this topic, visit IBM’s Midsize Insider. Dedicated to providing businesses with expertise, solutions and tools that are specific to small and midsized companies, the Midsize Business program provides businesses with the materials and knowledge they need to become engines of a smarter planet.