Problem-Solving: Reverse Engineering

Creative problem solving is an essential tool in anyone's toolbox! With effective problem-solving tools, you can employ the one which is best suited to help you resolve the situation and leverage it for success.  It is important to realize that one size doesn’t fit all.  While some tools may have worked wonderfully many times before, there are some issues which despite employing our favorite tool - it just doesn’t get the job done!

Sometimes the best tool may be a new tool - a different way of seeing the issue.  From this different perspective, it is possible to see opportunities and solutions that were not apparent with other problem-solving tools.

Reverse engineering is a term that refers to the process of starting with a widget and then deconstructing it carefully to see how and why it works - starting with what is and then breaking it down to its constituents and processes.  It starts with the finished product and works backward to the drawing board.

We can do the same thing with a number of the challenges we face every day - place a challenge in front of us and begin to deconstruct it.    We ask ourselves: “What needed to happen for this problem to occur?”  Who are the players? What are the circumstances and how does it all work together to create the issue?
From this perspective, it gives us some different insight as to where the issue(s) lie and then an indication of the specific areas to address.

Conversely, you want to complete a new task.  You go through the process of planning and assessing what you need to do to see the goal accomplished.  Next, you ask what will cause me to see the opposite of my desired results?  This can be a formidable list, but you can then rank it by likelihood and severity of the impact.   Review this list.  Is there anything on this list that potentially needs to be addressed, managed or planned for in your plan?
This process can be a powerful tool when you are stumped or just need a different perspective on the challenge at hand.

Tips for Reverse Engineering Problem-Solving

1) Be clear about the presenting challenge.  What is it?  Write it down.
2) Reverse Engineer the problem by asking:

What can I do or not do to cause the problem?
What can I do or not do to get the opposite of what I have set out as a goal?

3) Allow the reverse problem to generate ideas.  As with all brainstorming, let the ideas flow, and you can evaluate them next.
4) Evaluate the reversed ideas by reversing (again) them to serve your intended goal.
5) If the idea contributes positively to the original goal or challenge - keep it.  If it doesn’t - discard it.

Here’s a very simple example:

You have a retail business, and you want to cultivate return customers.  To reverse engineer this situation ask:
What do I have to do to make sure customers don’t come back?
You may develop a list of things like:

  • Don’t acknowledge them when the enter the store.
  • Make sure the employees aren’t available to assist them.
  • Don’t answer telephone inquiries.
  • Make sure employees don’t know anything about the products.
  • Make sure the employees are rude.

From this list, you reverse engineer:

  • Every customer is greeted in a warm, friendly manner when they enter the store.
  • Employees understand that serving the customer is their job.
  • Make sure telephone calls are answered promptly by a human being.
  • Equip employees to answer questions and make informed recommendations.
  • Employees are friendly, polite and attentive.

Remember to use good brainstorming techniques!  By reversing the engineering, we can see solutions to our challenge from a different perspective, and you can discover a number of potential solutions.

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