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Solving problems better

How? By finding bright spots – near and far. At Pfizer…

Jordan Cohen was not sure what to do. He and his team had set up PfizerWorks, a new department at the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, with the goal to outsource tasks such as data vetting, PowerPoint preparation and market research to virtual analysts.

PfizerWorks was an innovative initiative that was sure to free up valuable time for the employees and allow them to focus on the core operations of the company, as well as react more quickly to customer needs. The upside was huge. Soon after its launch, an unexpected issue arose. The plan was for PfizerWorks analysts located in Chennai, India would interact directly with Pfizer's employees in the United States and elsewhere instead of communicating through a central office. This allowed for a faster and more cost-effective process. But frictions arose in cross-cultural communication. The difference in cultural norms surfaced everywhere - in email interactions, voice tone, choice of words.

How did they solve the problem?

They tried to brainstorm their way through and tap on their past experience.

They failed.

So they looked for bright spots (viable solutions) within the pharmaceutical industry. What were other companies doing? How had they dealt with this issue of cross-cultural communication?

They failed again. They were not able to find any good solutions there either (it was still early days of outsourcing).

Then they decided to reframe the problem more abstractly, on a conceptual level.

From the specific framing: “How do other outsourcing firms train their analysts?”

To the more abstract framing: “Which other industries have to deal with problems of cross-cultural communication at the frontline?”

And bingo! By asking themselves where such problems usually appear, they were able to find a solution…. in the hospitality industry!

Large international hotel chains based in India groomed front desk and concierge staff to communicate both with locals and with people from international cultures. These people had the skills Pfizer was looking for.

So instead of hiring people with analytical skills and teaching them how to handle communications, they decided it would be easier to hire hotel staff who were already culturally fluent, and teach them analytical skills.

And they now knew exactly where to find these people: they were working as concierge in India’s international hotel chains. The case study appears in the book What’s your problem? by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg.

What can we learn from industry case studies like this one?

Every problem is unique in its particulars. But at the same time, once you look beyond the specifics, many problems share a “conceptual skeleton” - meaning they are the same type of problem. Chances are the same type of problem you face at work today is a problem that someone (in another department or industry) faced yesterday, and that someone else will face tomorrow. Some of these people may have solved it. Try and look for these solutions – these bright spots.

How to look for bright spots

Reflect . Perhaps you have you already solved the problem at least once in the past. Consider a time when you didn't have this problem, or when the problem was less severe. What made it so? Look around you . Are there any positive outliers in your group? Is there anyone among company your peers that has solved the problem? Can you find out what they are doing differently? Look beyond . Who else deals with this type of problem, in general? To find bright spots in other industries, describe the problem in more abstract terms, like in the Pfizer example ⬆. Who else outside your industry deals with that type of problem? Who seems not to have this problem even if they are in a similar situation? What are they doing differently? Broadcast . Can you broadcast the problem widely? If you cannot find the bright spot through your search, let the bright spot find you. Talk with people from other departments and share your problem. Use the companies intranet or other in-house channels. Talk to friends who work in other industries. Consider using social media to solicit input. (Depending on confidentiality level.)

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