Stop Decorating the Fish

Solve the Real Problem

How many times do we end up working hard to solve a problem only to realize that we are solving the wrong problem?

Why is that? Are we overly focused on what worked in the past?

Former government official and management expert Kristen Cox teamed up with business consultant Yishai Ashlag in the book Stop Decorating the Fish: Which Solutions to Ignore and Which Problems Really Matter. An instructive book, complete with a fictional town named Busyville offers us a blueprint to solve this problem.


The Seductive Seven

They start by sharing the “Seductive Seven” which is a list of common tactics organizations may use to respond to problems:

  1. More technology
  2. More data
  3. More strategy
  4. More training and communication
  5. More reorganization
  6. More accountability and assigning blame
  7. More money

Though these traps promise quick fixes, they often cause us to pursue one of them instead of the real cause of the original problem. I found the book fascinating, and it rings true. I followed up with Kristen to talk about the findings and experience.


Why are we so often drawn to the Seductive Seven, and how can we identify the real problem?

As human beings, we tend to focus on and react to what we can directly experience, see, or touch. For example, we can see data dashboards, organization charts, spreadsheets, new strategic plans, or the latest new technology trend bouncing around social media.

By contrast, the real problem—the one that can make or break an organization—is often invisible to us and takes effort to uncover.

Simply put, we are surrounded and bombarded by the Seductive Seven on an almost daily basis. It takes discipline to ask the hard questions that help us identify our organization’s real limitation(s).

The pull of the Seductive Seven stems from our belief that a lack of something is the problem. For example, we may have some data, but we think that if we just had more data the breakthrough solution will magically reveal itself. Or we’re stretched thin, so gathering more resources will solve the problem. The truth is that securing more of something only gives us the illusion of progress. It’s like adding more of an ingredient to a recipe hoping that the final product will be better. More by itself doesn’t solve the problem, and it could actually make things worse. Think about data. More data can create noise and make it difficult for people to respond to the real signal.

We live in a world where people are rewarded for finding “solutions.” In this environment, we can mistake implementing a tool, such as AI, for solving a problem. Creating the discipline and expertise to clearly outline the real problem to solve is what sets exceptional organizations apart from mediocre ones.



Can you give some examples of leaders diagnosing the right problem instead of falling for the alluring tactics outlined in your book?

We’ve both been fortunate to work with exceptional leaders who intuitively avoid the Seductive Seven and know where to focus.

First, these leaders understand that achieving a goal is very different from eliminating a problem. The former requires creating something new, while the latter attempts to get rid of something that already exists. It’s like looking in the rearview mirror while driving. When we focus on what exists, we miss out on exploring new terrain.

Second, these exceptional leaders aren’t bound by existing obstacles or assumptions of what is or isn’t possible. When Elon Musk decided to accelerate the adoption of electric cars, he faced a slew of obstacles conventional wisdom said were impossible to overcome. Musk refused to compromise. Instead, he designed the ideal electric car that could compete with and even outperform combustion engines. If we begin our work from a place of what we know rather than what we want to achieve, we are hindered from the get-go.

Finally, exceptional leaders understand that most problems aren’t worth solving. A problem is only a problem within the context of a goal and a vision. Working with limited time, budgets, and resources can force us to clarify the problem. Innovation happens because of constraints, not despite them.



Once we identify the real problem, how can we, as leaders, advance the cause?

Creating buy-in and advancing the cause isn’t something to attempt haphazardly. There are two essential steps leaders must take when embarking on this phase of change.

First, we must expose the gap between where we are and where we want to be. This gap isn’t always clear. We can become so close to our current product line, performance, or business model that we don’t see either the opportunity cost or a new vision for the future. Setting ambitious, clear goals forces us to move out of our comfort zone. While shifting into the unknown is uncomfortable, it is in the unknown where opportunity resides.

Once we see a gap in performance or vision, we have to identify the obstacles in the way of achieving the goal. We love jumping into solution mode and selling everyone on our cool idea, but those listening are likely to raise questions either aloud, or worse, in their own heads.

Before pushing for a solution, we suggest a leader first articulate the criteria needed to evaluate if a solution is viable or not. Done well, this helps surface any “Yes, buts…” before a solution is offered.

Let’s consider a simple scenario: a leader may push for centralizing the IT resources spread out across an organization. Several people in the organization could easily imagine a number of “Yes, buts…” They may worry about setting up a bureaucratic IT shop that loses responsiveness to the business. Or the business may worry about embedded IT resources sacrificing their understanding of the business’s real-world needs.

A smart leader will identify these concerns ahead of time and turn them into criteria that must be met before pushing any “centralization” solution. If a solution can’t be responsive or maintain a deep understanding of business needs and processes, the solution isn’t viable. Identifying success criteria for evaluating a solution doesn’t just help with buy-in. It also helps create a much more robust solution with a higher chance of achieving the goal.


You demonstrate seven traps that are easy for organizations to fall into; for instance, more training and communication (#4). Would you share a little more about this trap and how to avoid it?

The Seductive Seven are often tricky to identify because they can be a tactic in the bigger solution. Training, for example, can be helpful when grounded in solving the right problem, but it isn’t, by itself, enough to solve the core problem.

Training and communications are part of the Seductive Seven because we often confuse knowing something for doing something. Consider our diets. All of us know that we should eat healthier food, but does this knowledge by itself change our behavior? For some it might, but for many of us, “knowing” something is insufficient. Instead, we suggest looking at the underlying processes, incentives, or policies that are driving the behaviors we want to change.

If, for example, a process or policy is poorly defined or designed, no amount of training or persuasion can compensate for its weaknesses. In our book, we use efforts to promote recycling as a case study. Countries around the world have launched successful PR campaigns to encourage recycling. The campaigns have worked in that most Americans today say they support recycling. But does their “knowledge” of the benefits of recycling change their behavior or that of producers? Despite all of these efforts, more than double the plastic was produced in 2015 compared to 1998, with only nine percent of it being recycled. Plastic is cheap to produce and cheap to consume. There is very little financial incentive for people to change their behavior despite PR campaigns.

We encourage organizations to make it easy for people to make the choices we want them to make. This requires eliminating friction points, improving processes, and fixing broken policies. It’s akin to cleaning out the junk food from our cupboards rather than relying on our “knowledge” when we’re craving a late-night snack. This is harder work, but it is essential if we want to achieve bold goals and breakthrough results.



If you are working in this type of environment, and see an organization falling into these traps, but feel ignored, what should you do?

Demonstrating is always better than trying to persuade—in other words, show, don’t tell. Of course, we all want people around us to buy into our ideas. But until we prove that our ideas work, we’re left trying to sell something we can’t justify.



The final item in the Seductive Seven is foundational to all the others since it requires that we focus on what we can control and have responsibility over. The impulse to change other people is seductive; while changing ourselves is often more difficult, it is ultimately far more rewarding.

For example, in government this takes the form of the executive branch blaming the legislative branch or state leaders blaming federal policies for their inability to take action. While outside entities may impose constraints on us, blaming them allows us to ignore what we aren’t doing. A state may have to function within the confines of federal policies related to Medicaid, but that doesn’t mean the state cannot find ways to deliver higher quality health care at a lower cost.

As an individual team member, first focus on delivering amazing results in your area of expertise. Find ways to make your colleagues’ lives easier by how you do your work. When this happens, you will naturally expand your circle of influence and credibility.

I’ve had to learn this lesson firsthand. As I went blind, I had to learn how to manage many of the negative stereotypes society has about the blind. A wonderful mentor taught me that I needed to change my own stereotypes of blindness and learn new skills so I could contribute to the workplace before expecting others around me to change. This simple advice changed my life.



What is the future of Busyville? Is there any hope for the town?

There is always hope. Alex, the hero in the story, will make his impact. The good news is that every organization has its share of Alexes. The question is whether we are open to learning from them.

I would go a step further by stating that all of us have an Alex inside waiting to claim his voice. Our intuition can help us become like Alex by strengthening our ability to think independently. When we sense that doing more of the same just isn’t going to work, that is our Alex. When we find ourselves questioning the status quo or the latest technology buzz, that’s our Alex. When all of the hype around a new initiative seems like more sizzle than substance, that’s our Alex. When we question the promise of a new consolidation or reorganization, that’s our Alex.

Our intuition serves as our compass. It can’t complete the job, but it can point us in a different direction if we’re willing to listen to it. Getting breakthrough results isn’t easy. It demands that we learn to think for ourselves and filter out the noise of the Seductive Seven. When we understand what to stop doing, we create the space and discipline to imagine what is possible. There is always hope—we just need to listen to the Alexes of the world.


For more information, see Stop Decorating the Fish: Which Solutions to Ignore and Which Problems Really Matter.





Image Credit: Rachel Hisko

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