What to do about Sloppy Thinking

By Khalil Abdul-Rahman

During the course of our work, we are often faced with competing ideas. We recognize that the strength of an idea should be an important consideration, but how do we test the strength of an idea? And how do we know when the strength of one idea is greater than another?

These questions may be more difficult to answer than we think. Take for example the case where two independent health service organizations were trying to help their shared client, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, solve a major problem: nearly a million people who qualified for drug prescription benefits were being denied drug coverage due to a complex computer software system failure.

Prior work performed by both health service organizations, and decisions already made by the client organization, contributed to the problem. After weeks of discussions among senior managers and technical staff, and after several rejected proposals, the client Chief Technology Officer declared that unless an acceptable solution approach was developed within two weeks, he would impose a solution that would result in major staffing changes affecting everyone.

He explained that the proposals presented so far had failed because they did not address satisfactorily the constraints on the solution, and in his view, represented sloppy thinking. The major constraints required that qualified people must be enrolled successfully without delay into a drug prescription benefit program and, for those whose enrollments had already been delayed, that their enrollments must be effective retroactive to the original enrollment date. Other critical constraints called for removing all unnecessary existing data redundancies and for prohibiting the creation of new unnecessary redundancies.

At the beginning of our problem solving process, we should define the problem in such a way as to include a description of the constraints on the solutions and to identify any boundary conditions. We have seen examples of constraints. Boundary conditions describe what will not be included in the study, for example, serving people who are not eligible for Medicare services.

To increase our understanding of a problem, we use frameworks that allow us to explore possible solutions. These frameworks provide a good part of the structure we need to either divide a problem into manageable pieces, or provide the context for recognizing where solution components can be combined to deliver exceptional value. In both instances, their use starts the process of testing the strength of ideas for suitability.

We will take a look at some frameworks that have proven to be useful in an upcoming article.

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