We proved we could do it, now we can think about how we want to do it

This story, which I just re-uncovered, is a great example of the problem-solving mindset that doesn’t settle for a first answer (see the Barometer Story for another). It’s from the book Managing as Designing by Richard Boland Jr., and Fred Collopy. They are talking about the construction of a building on Stanford’s campus.

Toward the end of the design process for the Lewis Building, there was a need to reduce the floor space by about 4,500 square feet. One of us traveled to Gehry’s Santa Monica offices and worked with the project architect, Matt Fineout, on the problem. We first identified those miscellaneous spaces that had to be squeezed into the smaller footprint (tea kitchens, closets, rest rooms, storage areas, and spaces for copiers, fax machines, and printers). There were many constraints to be met including proximity to classrooms and offices, “ownership” by various departments and research centers, and circulation patterns in each area. We went through the floor plans, beginning with the lower level and working our way up to the fifth floor. The process took two days.

Working with large sheets of onionskin paper laid on top of floor plans, we would sketch possible arrangements until we had something we all agreed was a good solution. Then we would transfer the arrangement in red pencil onto the plans. Each move of one element affected others and often required backtracking and revising previously located elements. Many times during the two days, we would reach a roadblock where things were just not working out, so we would start with a clean sheet of onionskin and try a different approach. At the end of two days, it was a tremendous sense of accomplishment to have succeeded in locating all the required elements into the reduced floor sizes. We were working at a large table and Matt was leaning far onto it, marking the final changes. As he pushed back from the table, we were joking about how tedious the process had been and how glad we were to have it over. As we joked, Matt gathered all the sheets of onionskin and the marked-up floor plans, stacked them, and then grabbed an edge and tore them in half. Then he crumpled the pieces and threw them in the trashcan in the corner of the room. This was a shock! What was he doing? In a matter-of-fact tone, he said, “We proved we could do it, now we can think about how we want to do it.”

What an outstanding frame of mind — to realize that the first solution that gets you over the finish line isn’t necessary the best solution. So often, it’s answer 3, 4, or 10 that does the trick. When you have multiple options, you are able to choose among them.  It gives you much more confidence in the quality of the answer.


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