The tale of the bent fork and a lesson in collaborative problem solving

You don’t really expect to be drinking white wine in balmy afternoon sunshine in mid-October in the Baltics. But luck (or global warming!) were on our side last month and that’s just what Lucy and I were doing one sunny Sunday afternoon.

Lucy had joined me on one of the legs of my ‘EU Adventure’, a personal travel challenge to visit all the EU member states before the 29th March next year (don’t mention the B word!). We’d had a busy couple of days tramping round Vilnius before a super early start to catch the coach to Riga. After walking round the city for a couple of hours we found ourselves a sunny spot and settled down for something cold, white and dry. I chucked my canvas bag on the spare chair next to.


Hearing that my phone had fallen out of my bag I leaned down to pick it up. I couldn’t see it. I shuffled round in my seat. Still no sign of it. I doubled myself down and looked right under my seat. A dawning realisation. “Oh no!” In a ridiculous I-couldn’t-do-that-again-if-I-tried turn of events, my phone had slipped out of my bag and right down through a gap in the decking. Decking that was secured to the main city square and currently home to a few hundred Sunday diners. And there it sat, shining up at us, visible through a gap that not even a child’s fingers would fit through, never mind ours.

We sat there for a while, giggling in disbelief. Then Lucy took control, beckoned over the waitress and over the next 45 minutes or so what played out in a square in Europe was a textbook case study in how different people behave in a crisis.

Waitress: “If this had happened in two weeks’ time it would be OK because we take the decking up on 28th October.”* She leaves saying she’ll come back with equipment.

*This is not useful information to know but in all problem situations there’s always someone who tells you how things wouldn’t be this bad if something else had or hadn’t happened. Stay calm.

Lucy and table neighbour man 1 and table neighbour man 2 have a chat about how the decking is put together. I sit there and look at my phone in the manner of a golden retriever puppy who stares at the garden shed, not quite believing his ball has rolled under there and got lost*. Table neighbour man 2 wanders off.

*There’s always someone for whom it takes a bit longer for the reality of the problem to sink in, who just observes for a while.

Waitress returns with some knives and forks. She drops to her knees and frantically fruitlessly starts stabbing away at the gap. After a few minutes she discards the cutlery saying she has another idea and she’ll be back. She never returns.*

*Don’t worry, it’s nothing you did wrong – there’ll always be people who dive enthusiastically and then get distracted by something else (in her case waitressing, which was the job she was actually there to do and don’t forget business as usual needs to carry on when other problems are being solved.)

Lucy, table neighbour man 1 and I get down on our knees and take over the fruitless stabbing with cutlery. We lose a knife down the gap. Table neighbour man 2 returns and in the manner of someone trying to cut a dodgy deal pulls back his coat to reveal a screwdriver. “Brilliant!” says Lucy. “Oh my God, that’s a ridiculous idea,” thinks me*. Not wanting to be discouraging I say “Oh wow, that’s a good idea but these are Phillips screws and that’s a flat head screwdriver.” Never have I been so grateful for screwdriver knowledge.

*Be risk aware. Never set about solving a problem if solving it will just create an even bigger one! Like damaged public property…

By now we have attracted quite a lot of attention and people around us are watching us, amused, offering words of support and adding the odd pointless observation. “C’mon, let’s forget this and drink our wine,” I say. Table neighbour man 1 retreats, a disappointed look on his face. Lucy and I settle back in our chairs. I start running through the problem. “I’ve been uploading my photos to Instagram as I go, the phone is being upgraded on 3rd November and until then I have a spare handset. I’ll find somewhere to print off my boarding pass for getting home.”*

*Be realistic about the likely impact of the problem and if it’s not that big a deal (or if the problem is unsolvable) just move on to thinking about how to solve the ripple effect problems.

But sometimes, you just don’t want to give up. I got back down and started some more focused cutlery manoeuvres. I managed to get the phone stood up on one side with the aid of a knife on either side. I was trying to concentrate but Lucy was busy throwing ideas out. “When you talk at me I lose my concentration and drop it again,” I said, which was really just a polite way of saying shut up*.

*Try not to tell people to shut up, even if they’re your mate.

And I should have been listening because her idea was great. “You need a grabber,” she said, fashioning one from a fork. We had our solution but there was a final moment of jeopardy! Table neighbour man 1 was back but in his enthusiasm to help he kept knocking my phone over just as it had been leveraged into the upright position and pushing it further away from the gap. I was losing patience and as I opened my mouth I glanced at Lucy – she was shaking her head and giving me ‘don’t snap at him eyes’.*

*Manage yourself and don’t get cross with your most enthusiastic problem solvers, even if they are a bit chaotic occasionally!

Then it all came together and with one of us holding the grabber and the other two holding a knife on either side my phone emerged. We cheered, the tables around us cheered. We were momentarily immersed in that wonderful feeling of solidarity than comes from a successful shared endeavour. And table neighbour man 1 was so happy. He looked puffed up and proud and excited in a way that felt a bit out of proportion, really. And I was so damn relieved that 90 seconds earlier I hadn’t lost my cool and burst his bubble. We ordered two glasses of wine for us and a bottle for his table and we all sat enjoying the last remnants of the sun.

“I’ll write a blog for you when we’re back”, I said as we wandered off, “it will be about collaborative problem solving.”

Catherine Raynor is a director of Mile 91, a story gathering agency for charities and social change organisations. You can find her on Twitter at @catherineraynor and on LinkedIn and she’s particularly enjoying meetings loads of inspiring new people through Lucidity Network so feel free to connect with her.

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Being up against it drives innovation

Recently we caught up with Luke Southern, Managing Director at Drum the creative arm of Omnicom Media Group. Drum are a content and creative business that helps ambitious brands, including McDonald’s, Virgin Media, Warner Brothers and Hasbro to create and influence popular culture.

Luke told us that innovation is vital for Drum. “Because the world is moving so quickly success for our clients is dependent on doing things differently, and creatively – and being up against it drives innovation.”

It’s harder than ever before to get young people’s attention – they have so much on the go all the time

Drums’ starting point for innovation is an unmet need or a problem. Recent research has shown that 18-24 year olds (a core audience for the brands that Drum works with) have an 8 second attention span. This means that companies have a tiny amount of time to make what they are saying relevant to their audience, something their audience wants to engage with and then share with their friends and social networks.

One of the ways that Drum seeks to make their innovation successful is to place brands within the existing pop culture. Drum refers to this as creating “cultural signals” for brands.

People care about popular culture; TV, music, films, comedy, sport as well as films about sport and music. When great branded content fuses the brands’ ambitions, with entertainment and popular culture we remember, we talk about it and we are interested.

A couple of years ago Drum made the Lego ad break. They reconstructed an entire ad break out of Lego, remaking popular ads of the time piece by piece. It was an effective piece of communication driving opening weekend box office takings of the The Lego Movie beyond expectations and it was also a great piece of entertainment in its own right that has been watched millions of times.

Drum have just used this approach again to promote the Lego Batman film. Lego Batman took over the continuity announcements on Channel 4 which meant that their target audience heard about the campaign from the media that they usually consume – they didn’t have to seek it out.  It made Batman as relevant to film lovers in their 30s and 40s as it is to kids. 40% of the population saw Batman continuity announcements in just 4 days and 1 in 6 booked to see the movie as a result.

Check it out here.

Luke acknowledges that Drum has the advantage of being part of a larger organisation and therefore has access to large data sets. “For example, if we know that someone has just bought a pair of shoes then they are unlikely to buy another pair of shoes, so advertising more shoes to the shoe buyer isn’t a good idea. However, they might well be in the market for a leather cleaner, so advertising that is a much better idea! Data can show us all sorts of things now and using the data available to understand your customers unmet needs, identify trends and solve problems can be a competitive advantage.”

Innovation is bloody hardpeople are addicted to certainty but certainty kills creativity

For Luke and his colleagues the biggest barrier to making innovation happen is budget restraints versus creative ideas that you can’t prove are going to work. Certainty kills creativity because you can never guarantee that something new is going to work.

Another challenge is bringing people alongside the changes that are needed in a business to enable the idea or innovation happen.

This means that for successful innovation getting the right mix of talent is really key. If you only recruit in your own image you won’t achieve the breakthroughs that you need to achieve. Innovation requires a democracy of ideas to enable excellence. There is a requirement for different experiences, backgrounds and skills to be able to create something really creative. Opening minds to take risks with different people and not always traveling the known road is vital for both Drum and their clients.

Innovation is not straightforward and requires leadership and Luke believes that an innovation leader must have the following qualities.

  • Avoid using the “I’m the Boss and we’re doing it my way” card.
  • Acknowledging problems – because pretending they aren’t there creates an atmosphere where people feel they can’t talk about difficulties.
  • Being able to steer people and encourage them to solve their own problems without stifling their views.
  • Listening and focusing on saying less, yet knowing where to intervene
  • Humility, being aware of your own weaknesses and not being afraid of saying when you have made a mistake

Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should

Luke’s other innovation advice is just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. Companies create clever widgets and gadgets that people just aren’t ready for or don’t need. There is a balance. Innovation needs to be something that people want. It needs to benefit people’s lives or to solve a problem. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it’s automatically something that people are excited about.

Luke’s advice to anyone wanting to improve their creativity and innovation skills is to read Creativity Inc. We agree – we wrote a blog inspired by it a while ago.

If you’d like to learn more insights from other successful innovators check out the new Innovation Leadership Launchpad – a mix of case stories and practical tips to help you innovate. Order your free copy straight into your inbox today.