The Meeting and the Wrong Problem
I sat, sipping a beer in a posh bar not far off Yaowarat Road in Bangkok. Normally, I prefer my meetings in dingy bars. I like the atmosphere better. But I was meeting with some high level businesschappies from Singapore and they are sensitive to class. So was the lass behind the bar, she didn’t approve of my rumpled linen suit. But my Thai was good enough to charm her and I explained I had just flown in earlier in the day.
The Singaporeans came in, looked around and spotted me. There were a lot of Chinese in the place, but only one Westerner with anarchic hair. I look a lot like my picture on the web site. We took a private table away from the bar and chatted politely over whiskey. Eventually, as it always does with the Chinese, the conversation moved over to business. They had a problem. They wanted solutions. They had contacted me.
I listened politely, took notes, asked questions and took more notes. “I believe I understand,” I said. “Now I need 48 hours. Can we meet here, the day after tomorrow at the same time?”
They agreed. We all had another drink, then I excused myself and left for a long walk towards my hotel. I could have taken a taxi. But walking helps me think. Anyway, jet lag convinced me it was six hours earlier and I needed to burn off some energy.
The next day, I walked around Bangkok a good deal. I visited my old stomping grounds on Jarunsanitwong Road, strolled around Lumpini Park and eventually hopped on a taxi boat for a ride up Bangkokyai and Bangkoknoi canals. From time to time I made notes and on two occasions, I rang one of the Singaporeans for clarity on a point.
The next morning, I reviewed my notes and modified my suggestion somewhat. It was beautiful. The day was spent visiting some old friends and shopping for gifts for family. In the evening, I returned to the posh bar.
The chaps from Singapore were enthusiastic. “You’ve solved our problem?” he asked before we had finished the first beer.
“No,” I said. “I’ve explained. That’s not what I do.”
“But,” he began, “I understood...”
“I don’t solve problems. I clarify them so you can solve them better,” I reminded him.
They looked at me slightly puzzled. Business is so solution oriented, that people fail to look properly at their problems. They also fail to look properly at my professional literature. I never agree to solve problems. My clients are usually better placed to do that. They simply need to understand their problems, something they inevitably have trouble doing.
I continued: “You’ve got your problem wrong. You should be asking yourself something all together different.” I explained how they should look at their problem and dropped some hints about how they could also look at it from different perspectives. I even suggested a model from the fishing industry that I thought might inspire them.
They were silent for a full two minutes, which is a surprisingly long time to be silent at a tense table. Then the more senior chap laughed and the younger one quickly joined in. They exchanged some rapid-fire Mandarin, which I do not understand. But from their smiles, I could see they were inspired.
Then the older chap looked at me an apologised for speaking in Chinese. I assured him it was quite all right.
We discussed the reframed problem for a while and already some incredible ideas were being put on the table. Ideas that were viable, though they would take some time to come to market. Nevertheless, assuming they follow through, their manufacturing sector can look forward to being disrupted in 2014 or so. I pity their competitors.
The Singaporean businesschaps thanked me and I left for my hotel. I had a flight back home leaving in the wee hours of the morning. And, anyway, they were busy with ideas.
I don’t solve problems. I help clients understand them in new ways. With that, innovative solutions come easy. Very easy.
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