Problem Solving Using the Appreciation Technique


In Conan Doyle’s story The Red Headed League, the famous detective Sherlock Holmes is faced with a particularly tricky problem. He utters to Watson that it is “Quite a three-pipe problem, and I pray that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes”.

In this way Holmes measured the complexity of a problem by the number of times he would fill his pipe while mentally working on it. Times have changed an awful lot since the days of Holmes and Watson, and the rather quaint aid to problem solving used by the former has been replaced by modern, proven techniques that analyse and dissect a problem in order to find the best solution.

Techniques such as Appreciation, Cause & Effect, Affinity and Risk examination are useful aids in problem solving, and more specific techniques such as SWOT examination (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) and PEST examination (Political, Economic, Socio-cultural, Technological) offer more tailored options. So Holmes’s three-pipe technique is consigned to the bin of history where it belongs, as, except being outdated, current smoking legislation would see the great man working on his problem outside the building.

But problems cannot be solved by a single, simple formula because they differ in complexity. For example, if your problem is mice behind the skirting board, then there are few solutions you need probe outside of buying a mousetrap. If, however, your problem is that you are a football manager with a player being stretchered off injured, then this is far more complicate as there are many different strategies that could be applied based on the substitutes obtainable, the current score, strengths and weaknesses of the opposition etc. So in this article we will look at the problem solving technique of appreciation.

In using appreciation to assist in problem solving, the maximum amount of information is extracted from a known fact by asking what the implications of that fact are. This is best done by asking the question ‘so what?’ after each inference has been taken. Here is a hypothetical example where a small business is faced with the problem of rising fuel costs.

Initial fact: Fuel prices have shot to their highest level ever.

So what?

To absorb this increase we will have to put our prices up considerably.

So what?

We may lose customers who are not prepared to pay the new prices.

So what?

Our revenue will be reduced.

So what?

We may be unable to pay the wages of our staff.

And here we come to the part of the problem that must be addressed, as this is where the effects of the original problem start to have a direct affect on business. The owner of the business can do nothing to stop the rising cost of fuel, but by using appreciation he has identified the knock-on effect those high prices will have on his business, and he can take appropriate action to minimise their impact.

He could apply cost-cutting measures in other places, or ask his staff to take a cut in hours until, hopefully, prices at the pump come back down to more affordable levels (given the choice of working fewer hours, or no hours at all, the staff would most likely be agreeable to this suggestion), or perhaps a combination of these options, with a small price rise thrown in to help things along.

As you can see, the use of appreciation in attempting to solve a problem is far more efficient, and certainly healthier, than the pipe-puffing method favoured by the great detective. There are, however, many more techniques that can be of use in the solving of problems, so this varied and interesting subject is definitely worth further investigation.

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