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Nitish Mukherjee

The author is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion

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Dark Roast Double Shot: Traversing Beyond Problem-Solving

The thought that problem-solving and opportunity-optimising are entirely different ways of growing businesses stayed with me. Over the years, I have realised its wisdom and powerful influence.

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I turned to look out of the window of a multi-storeyed building in the heart of the business district in Mumbai. Rain was coming down in sheets incessantly for the last many hours, as if to pound the city into submission. The video in our credential’s presentation would run for another minute or so before I went through the concluding remarks. In that brief private moment as I saw my wavering reflection in the pane, I couldn’t subdue the warmth of a smile as it lit up my face and wiped away the tiredness of the early morning flight and long wait for this day. I knew the presentation had connected well with the audience and we had definitely made a very positive impact.

We were in the office of the largest and most respected brand of cosmetics in the country. We were keen to get their business. It was a full house with the entire marketing team there along with the CEO. As the presentation ended and the client comments started rolling in it seemed the sun was shining for us, if only just in that room. The Head of Marketing was really eloquent about our strategic thinking and mentioned specifically how our creative work had personally touched her. It was finally the turn of the CEO to speak and hopefully bless the combined wisdom.

There was silence in the room, as the CEO sat looking hard at his nails in deep contemplation. In what seemed an eternity he looked up straight at me and said in a soft tone “If I ever required advice on how to solve a problem, I would call you guys in the blink of an eye. Your creative work and your case studies are so impactful that I have no doubt that your clients get exceptional value from you. But we as a brand have never had a problem. In this market we are blessed with huge opportunities and we just have to make the most of it. That requires a very different approach and that is probably not what your team is attuned to doing. You are great at what you do but that is not what we should be doing.” The rain outside seemed to have reached a still higher crescendo and clouds darkened as gusty winds decided where the rain must finally fall.

The rain was like a silent waterfall outside the glass expanse in the lobby of the hotel. The second cup of Dark Roast Double Shot had quietened the storm within and focussed me on to the invaluable learnings that had accompanied the lashings of the western monsoon. The thought that problem-solving and opportunity-optimising are entirely different ways of growing businesses stayed with me. Over the years, I have realised its wisdom and powerful influence. Each has its exemplary value but they are completely distinct approaches; to be employed as the situation demands. They need different mindsets and skills.

Problem-solving is much feted and many models exist in psychology and business that define it in great depth. Principally, they all follow the same five step process of problem identification, problem definition, exploring solutions, monitoring progress and problem resolution. Data analytics and research can play a very important role in the early stages and creativity comes in to play when you start brainstorming to look for solutions. It is basically a plan of action to find a solution. In a way it is a hunter’s delight.

Opportunity-optimising on the other hand is more of a discoverer’s paradise. It can often be uncharted territory. It is less about certainty and more about possibility. While data and research can help in many ways, much of it may be outside business and consumers, in the larger context of change and the environment in which you exist or operate. It follows intuition and validates it.  

While there may be some tools that can be used across both ways of thinking, it is the differences that magnify the distance between the two. Let us look at three ways which bring home their incongruity and separation from each other. 

Identification vs Prediction

Problem-solving is about identifying the problem and its genesis. The sharper the definition of the problem the easier it would be to eliminate or circumnavigate it. Opportunity-optimisation on the other hand is about connecting the dots that are seemingly unrelated and which when put together predict latent possibilities. 

Existing vs Envisaged

It is the difference between what is in there vs what is out there. The problem exists somewhere within the domain of your business and its activities or your interface between the business and its other stakeholders. An opportunity on the other hand has to be visualised and imagined; albeit with logic and rationale to support it. But it does not exist, it has to be envisioned.

Solving vs Creating 

When you solve a problem, you may do it by trial and error, algorithmic step by step approach or a heuristic approach of working backwards from a focussed end result (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). At its best, it is a process driven approach. In the case of unlocking opportunities though, creativity and intuition are the guiding light. You create the possibility by imagining it and then setting in motion a set of actions that bring it to fruition.

The competencies required to practice either method, are very different from each other; so are the occasions when they can deliver the goods. As an illustration while the problem-solving approach is great for established brands with significant market shares or very structured markets, the opportunity-optimising route may deliver better results in categories that are new and emerging with low penetration or innovative products and services. Businesses that want to maximise their potential need resources that can deliver on both fronts because these differing styles actually complement each other to deliver a more robust whole brain thinking approach. However, most tend to choose one kind over the other. In today’s world of intense competition this is another critical need which makes a strong case for diversity within the resource pool and leadership. 

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(Nitish Mukherjee is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion.)