When Mirrors and Elevators Got Married

What problems are staring you right in the face?

Did you ever notice that mirrors and elevators usually show up together? I can’t think of a hotel that I have stayed in that didn’t have a mirror near the elevator. Do you know why?

In their book, Turning Leaning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track, Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg describe the breakthrough that lead to the marriage of elevators and mirrors.

In the mid-20th century in a New York City office building, occupants began complaining about the poor elevator service. According to tenants, waiting times for elevators, especially during peak hours, were excessively long. So long, that several tenants threatened to break their leases and move out of the building.

The manager of the building contacted an engineering firm that specialized in elevator system design and operations. The problem was described to the engineers, who then conducted a time study and determined that indeed, waiting times were excessive.

Building management authorized another study that revealed that because of the age of the building, no engineering solution was economically feasible.

The engineers told management that they would just have to live with the problem permanently.

They were stuck with the elevators they had.

The desperate manager called a staff meeting. Among his staff was a recently hired graduate of personnel psychology. The manager asked the group to generate possible solutions to the problem. Unfortunately, every idea that was generated was beaten down by pointing out its faults.

Finally, the room went silent. The only person who had not participated in the botched brainstorming session was the young personnel psychologist.

The general manager singled out the young man and asked him if he had an idea. He told his boss that he was reluctant to express an idea because he saw how the other ideas were slaughtered when they were presented.

When he did speak, the young man considered the problem not from the mechanical perspective, but from the human perspective. Why, he asked, were riders complaining about waiting for a relatively short time? What if the riders were bored? What if we gave them something to do while waiting?

He defined the problem as: “How might we give riders something to do while they wait? and, “How might we find something pleasant to occupy riders time while in the boarding areas?”

His idea: Install mirrors near the elevators so that while riders were waiting they could look at themselves, or surreptitiously check out other riders.

Mirrors were installed.

Complaints about waiting stopped.

This Innovation Espresso is excerpted from Roger’s new book:
Create in a Flash: A leader’s recipe for breakthrough innovation

A little
advice.

When you are trying to redefine a problem, don’t just include the technical experts. Make sure to get an outside perspective, like the psychologist in the elevator story. It is important to involve the people that know what CAN be done and to include people that don’t know what can be done. You’ll always get fresh perspectives from people who are not involved with the problem in a good brainstorming session.

Now it's your turn...

How have you solved tough problems by re-defining them?

Let me know in the comments below.

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