To solve problems, first define them

By Daragh O Brien
March 9, 2016
23min read

One of the great things about running a boutique research-driven consultancy in the Information Governance/Quality/Privacy space is that we get asked by clients to look at interesting things and figure out not just what the opportunity is that exists in the problems and challenges of today. What are the things that are happening in the information space that are creating risks as people “run with scissors” to adopt new technologies and ways of working without necessarily understanding the full range of issues and risks.

I personally like this as it means we get to work on some really fun stuff, some of which goes nowhere (we find there are either no opportunities – the client is simply trying to repeal the laws of information physics) but some of which has significant potential. I like it because we get to work with people like the team at Medxnote who have some interesting ideas about how to solve a problem that Healthcare organisations are just beginning to wake up to.

The key challenge in helping companies like Medxnote define their information strategy is helping them to understand what the problem is that they are trying to solve. My personal preference is to find the complex problem and then solve it simply and elegantly. That usually means breaking the problem down into discrete chunks and figuring out what is urgent, what is essential, and what is “shiny”.

I can’t talk in detail (yet) about the work we are doing for Medxnote, but it has been a journey that has highlighted and confirmed a few things from my nearly two decades experience in information change management.

These are universal lessons, but ones that

  • Aiming to solve ALL the problems with ONE magic bullet is a noble vision, but will likely fail.

The reason things fail is that the underlying problems and challenges are almost invariably more complex than the original assumptions allowed for.

  • Up to 84% of data migrations fail (don’t deliver, deliver late, deliver over budget) due to a failure to understand the complexity of data.
  • 80% of small businesses don’t make it past three years because of assumptions made about risk, capability, costs, market, etc.

Complex information management and compliance related challenges likewise face a litany of happy path assumptions. Iteratively defining the problems that exist, and then figuring out how to solve them in order of priority / ease of execution is important. It can also affect how you go to market with your intiativies. Sometimes you need to build trust by solving part of a problem so you can get momentum to flip the BIG opportunity.

  • Nobody will ever want to buy a solution to a problem they don’t want to admit to, even if they have that problem.

“Not my Monkey, Not my circus” sums up much of my early career trying to convince people that data quality or data governance was a problem they needed to care about.

Turns out, management are often more concerned about how they explain things to investors, shareholders, or Joe Duffy. If they are not being told that something is a problem, or if they recognise that something is a problem but it is not a problem that has been created through their actions or decisions, it can be difficult to create a sense of urgency or desire to invest in a solution. Of course, what has worked today or been appropriate for the current environment may not be acceptable tomorrow. Laws change, technology changes, people’s expectations and attitudes change.

Policies often don’t keep pace. For example, Email and Mobile phone Acceptable Usage policiesin organisations tend to be based on templates that are nearly two decades old. Social Media policies are often written from the perspective of Brand/Marketing or Legal. But quite often they have nothing in them to reflect the growth in “over-the-top” messaging applications and messaging capabilities.

In that context, managers can be afraid to address issues because it may be perceived as them having allowed risks and potential liabilities to arise. (Of course we all know that deciding not to decide is, in and of itself, a decision which can give rise to liability, but that’s another discussion).

  • Innovation does not come from the customer, it comes from the producer correctly identifying the new and emergent need from the challenges the customer has.

I teach a course on Innovation and Entreprenerial thinking for Information Quality and Governance professionals. In that course, I quote Henry Ford and W. Edwards Deming, both of whom were scathingly abrupt about the role of the customer in innovation. Henry Ford famously told a reporter who asked about the process that lead to the Model T that

“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have told me a faster horse

In his book The New Economics, Deming also highlighted the role of the customer in innovation:

“The customer generates nothing. No customer asked for electric lights… No customer asked for photography… No customer asked for an automobile… No customer asked for an integrated circuit.

When working out information strategies (or information related strategies for governance, quality, and compliance), we try to help clients figure out what the voice of the customer is actually telling them. Medxnote are doing a good job on this I feel, and our team looks forward to helping Niall and his team iteratively build out their understanding of what their customers need and solving those problems elegantly and efficiently. The Polaroid instamatic camera famously came about because Edwin Land (the inventor) was pestered by his six-year old daughter about why she couldn’t see pictures of her birthday party immediately.

Part of that though is then leading the market to understand how the solution presented is addressing the problem they had. A car goes faster than a horse but does other stuff as well.

Photography solves a problem and creates opportunities for new technologies based on it. The work Medxnote is doing is providing a (hopefully) elegant solution to a problem that many hospital managers are not yet willing to recognise, largely because of the issues outlined in the previous point.

And just as Edwin Land had to patiently explain to his daughter why the photographs of her birthday party would take some time to develop, and developing the technology to develop them instamatically would also take time, that thought leadership can also mean explaining to eager early adopters why the “magic bullet” solution is not yet ready.

That is challenge I’ve experienced in a range of data management related change, and experience with projects we’re running with other clients. Once the lightbulbs go on in the customer’s mind it is only a short hop from a Model T to someone wanting the Bugatti Veyron or a Prius. Similar technologies, solving the same basic problem but with a load more complexity thrown in that needs to be addressed.

  • ​Sometimes the problem you need to solve isn’t the solution you are selling

This sounds counterintuitive. But sometimes what you need to solve isn’t the product or service problem related to data management/governance/quality/privacy (delete as appropriate). Sometimes (in fact, most of the time) the real problem that needs to be solved is how people are thinking about data. The reframing of problems as opportunities, the reworking of objections as requirements are all traditional sale techniques. But sometimes what you need to sell is something else. Something that makes life easier, reduces cognitive load of decision making, give political air cover, or reduces the personal capital or time that decision makers need to invest to put something into place to fix the glaring data issue.

Niall in Medxnote calls these issues “boulders”, I call them “Human Factors”. Ultimately, they are about communication and problem solving. And often the problem isn’t the data or the technology. It’s the perception of the issue.


I hope to be able to share over the next while more information about how we are helping Medxnote (and others) develop innovative products and strategies that embrace Privacy by Design and Data Protection obligations to solve problems that are beginning to be recognised in a variety of sectors. For now, the pace of change and evolution in data privacy and the other areas of our consulting practice continues – and we continue to work with innovative clients to try and find the elegant and simple solutions to the small challenges that can add up to big problems.


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