In James L. Adams book Conceptual Blockbusting: A guide to better ideas, the author talks about a classic “door” problem. If you were to say to a bright group of students, “We need a better door,” they would begin to propose all sorts of variations on doors, each one more interesting than the last. Their solutions may be amazing, even revolutionary, but each solution would still be just a door. If, however, you approach the same group and say, “We need a better way to get through that wall,” suddenly the scope of the problem changes and the scope of the solution is wide open.
Asking for a better door puts limitations on the possible solutions. The clever student will realize that a door is not the question itself, but it is an answer to the larger question of how to go through the wall. To address the door rather than the wall does not make a solution to the problem, it makes a problem of the solution.
A client of mine, a doctor who did investigational research for depression therapy, noticed that all the people who visited his office for group studies were extremely reserved when around other people in the group. This was understandable enough—he was studying depression and various mental disorders after all—but this was different. People were so reserved that often the entire group was unworkable and the entire study would have to be scrapped. The studies were free and in many cases the patients were actually paid for their participation, but still people acted as though that office was the last place they wanted to be.
My client thought perhaps he needed to try attracting people from different areas, that maybe the culture of a location made residents difficult to work with, but no matter where he focused his efforts the results were the same. He decided to target specific age groups, but again he got the same result. The doctor tried shooting for different criteria but nothing worked. Clearly he was getting the wrong people, but he had no idea how to get the right people.
We decided to back up and look at things from a different angle. Were the people really the problem? When prospective patients came to the doctor’s office for the initial visit, they would all sit in a waiting area before being called back as a group for preliminary evaluation. The waiting room was a good size, but the space was being used poorly. All the seats were pushed back against the wall, encircling the room. This made the room feel large and spacious, the idea being to keep people from having to sit uncomfortably close to one another, but it actually made things quite cavernous and cold.
Worse than the mood set by the size, though, was the “initial meeting” it created for the patients. Since the chairs went around the room, this meant everyone waiting was forced to face inward and at one another. People don’t like to make much eye contact at the dentist; they are even less inclined to make eye contact at a mental health research facility. People would glance up but would quickly turn their attention back down to the floor. Patients’ mood and self esteem fell through floor and participation suffered as a result.
In an episode of the somewhat controversial show The Dog Whisperer, a show that fixes “problem dogs” within the allotted time block, the host was trying to get to the heart of a situation involving two dogs who were overly aggressive towards one another. The two owners, a man and a woman who had begun dating, realized they could never live together since their dogs always tried to attack eachother whenever they met. The host asked the couple to bring the dogs together as they normally do and sat back to watch the situation unfold. He realized that every time the dogs met it was head-to-head, coming straight at one another, an aggressive meeting by design. He proposed having the dogs meet one another by walking side to side and suddenly the mood changed. The dogs got along wonderfully once they were moving together rather than at eachother.
At the risk comparing patients too closely to dogs on a television show, something similar was happening in our waiting room. People were being forced to sit head-to-head and rather than asserting dominance the patients, already in a fragile mental state, submitted. We reorganized the waiting area to make it feel more comfortable and inviting, allowing people to sit with one another rather than at one another, and immediately the atmosphere changed. There was far less “get me out of here” and much more “here’s what I feel,” all because we were able to address the true problem.
So often people focus on the wrong things and just complicate things. We become so fixated on a door that we forget what the door’s primary function is and why we ever created a door in the first place. When faced with a problem, always make sure you answer the right questions.