A few weeks ago, members of our Design and Transformation team were performing DILOs (Day In the Life Of) with some amazing individuals working on the front lines of service delivery in Australia. Their work was both challenging and highly emotional given the current state of heightened medical and economic pressures.

What made this activity particularly interesting and rewarding was that we were able to introduce some innovative technologies into an environment where the staff invest significant time and effort toward improving the lives of their customers. It also allowed staff to demonstrate, for the first time, the complexities of their day-to-day work with the organisation’s executive leadership team.

Looking back to the start of the engagement, the first video call I had with the client was sobering. She gave me the backstory of their organisation’s situation and talked about the services they provide. She mentioned that she was getting reports from her staff that their psychological and emotional stress levels had reached new heights due to additional workload from incoming customers—and constraints to service throughput meant some customers were being turned away and not receiving the services they desperately needed.

She then asked me a question that I would normally have a straightforward answer to. However, the current circumstances made imagining a way forward quite difficult. The question was: “How exactly can you engage with staff and come to grips with the situation to design a solution [when your physical presence is most certainly required and yet completely prohibited]?”

I explained to her, at that moment, that I had no idea what the solution would look like or even how we would go about doing the work. Not really what you want to hear from a consultant. But I told her I was confident in our approach and its ability to generate solutions to seemingly impossible problems—which is what this looked like to me. And that made it a textbook opportunity for problem abstraction.

Fast-forward a few weeks, and here I am: standing at T = + 8 days, looking back over the piloting of a solution that has the potential to transform the work lives of thousands of frontline staff. At the same time, this has proved to be a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the power of using problem abstraction to break down the barriers of psychological inertia. Especially when, three-months ago, remotely conducting, designing, and implementing solutions for sensitive operations like this would never have been considered.

The key callout I want to mention here isn’t about the solution we designed or the technologies that we used to capture the current state. It’s about how we thought through it, using a process of abstraction to overcome long-standing organisational issues and red tape.

All too often people succumb to their own psychological inertia when all they really need is a little abstraction. When a job has been performed in the same way by the same group of people for a number of years, it can be all too easy to respond with, “Things have to be done this way because it’s the way they’ve always been done.” When someone is asked to challenge their own thinking and come up with a new way of working, they often draw a blank.

Then again, we can take a problem—one that’s been known for several years—and we can create an abstraction of that problem—one that is very far removed from the familiar circumstances that surround it—which allows the problem solver to move into the realm of fantastical possibilities. Then, as long as that analogous problem maintains the exact structure of the original problem, the moment we identify a solution that solves the abstracted problem, the same solution structure can be applied to original problem.

Problem Abstraction example

In our case, we were challenged with designing and implementing a solution that improved the work lives of several thousand staff members and delivered a minimum of a 3.4x improvement in throughput of service delivery to group of high-risk customers. And we did exactly that by using a process of abstraction.

Not every industry has a solution to every problem. But every problem has at least one solution. It’s quite possible that the solution to the problem you’re trying to solve exists in another industry or is waiting for you in the realm of fantastical possibilities.

Mike Iarossi

Author Mike Iarossi

Mike is the founder of the Design and Transformation team at Providence Consulting. He is the founder of Redshift Consulting and Praetorian Code, and Board Member to the International Business TRIZ Association. He holds a Masters in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (UMD) and a Bachelors in Psychology and Education (UCSB). He is a Certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt (UTS); and a Certified Practitioner of Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ). He is a former US Army Ranger and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fanatic.

More posts by Mike Iarossi