It has been said that the United States is a fat lady restlessly sleeping in a twin bed with Canada, her skinny lover. Even her unconscious movements rock his world. Maybe so, maybe not. But it is true that ninety percent of all Canadians live within ninety miles of its 2,600 mile border with the U.S. Even though Canada is over 170,000 square miles larger, with 60% of the continent’s total natural resources, its population is just over one-tenth that of the United States. If you were that skinny man, you would have to move quick and think even quicker just to survive.
If you had been trying to jump-start Canada’s sickly economy after Word War II, you would have done almost anything to get your people to move north where the natural resources were. And the Canadians offered a lot. Top money, more than most could earn elsewhere in a year, was available in just five months, but it was not enough. Because it was cold and isolated from the rest of Canada, and with poor transportation and inconsistent deliveries of food, supplies and communication, life was hard. Electric power was primitive in the territories, the daylight was always too long or too short. It was a difficult and lonely life.
The Canadians that took up the challenge were tough people who needed money to support themselves and their families living a long way away. While these individualists could tolerate the harsh conditions, being out of touch with family and friends was an almost intolerable burden.
The reason for the lack of telephone service was simple. Calls were sent on cables over poles powered by electricity. When it rained, the water froze on the cables and continued to build up and weigh the cables down until they broke. Both the calls and the electricity that carried them were stopped.
Repairs took forever, because it took forever to first find the break and then to fix it. In some winter months, communication to the border did not exist.
The managers of the Canadian phone system were desperate for a solution. Pressure from the government – unlike their service – was continuous and plentiful.
A collection of senior and middle managers was brought together from throughout the phone system’s service areas and disciplines in the hopes of generating a solution. After days of almost fruitless conversation, a new voice was heard.
It came from an administrative assistant who was in the room checking to see if anyone needed anything. She heard someone say, “If we could just make a cable that would shed water, then the lines wouldn’t freeze and snap.”
Without thinking she said, “Well, if we could train birds to fly very low over each phone and electric power cable, the wind from their wings would sweep the rain water off of the cable so it wouldn’t freeze.”
First there was silence, then there was a laughter that turned back into silence. But this second silence was not the stunned silence of surprise but the thoughtful silence that usually follows a good idea.
Some were thinking why it wouldn’t work. Others were thinking, “What should I be thinking?,” and the rest were trying to find ways of making the idea happen.
Someone did find a way. Trained birds flying over cables was not the answer, but clip-on plastic propellers on each cable driven by the wind with a flipping mechanism at the point where the cable meets the pole to return the device back the opposite way did the trick.
The following year, phone and power disruption dropped by 82 percent. With a few modifications to the flipping mechanism, the disruptions were completely stopped except in the most northern provinces.
Most problems are problems only because they have been defined in ways that inhibit, even restrict, possible solutions. This is not incompetence, but habit.
People develop patterns of thinking and acting based on past successes and failures in their own lives. Stepping back from a problem to examine its components with an open mind is the only way to solve seemingly unsolvable problems.
When this “examination attitude” is adopted company-wide, where open-minded thinking and the willingness to challenge old or out-dated concepts are encouraged, the possibilities are endless.
There is no such thing as only one idea or one solution to a problem. There is, however, only one attitude that fosters problem solving. A willingness to openly evaluate and examine the components of the problem with historical prejudices and personal agendas removed. Decide what you want to happen, to whom you want it to happen and what results you expect before the problem is defined. In this way, when solutions are proposed they can be evaluated against a specific list of communication goals and objectives. Each proposed concept can then be ranked to determine which idea has the best chance of success.
Unlike most television stories, there is not always a happy ending to corporate communication problems. Less than satisfactory results or outright failures are sometimes inevitable, but again, unlike most television stories, it is not over at the end of the show. Creativity and imagination are part of a process, not the end result.
If it’s broke, fix it. If it’s not broke, make it better.