Throwaway Data

During the creative problem solving process, there’s a stage when we encourage people to capture all the information about the problem we’re trying to solve. There are lots of ways to do this, but often we’ll collect people at a table with the goal of gathering data and we’ll ask them to write down all the information about the challenge that might be pertinent. At this point, the client – or stakeholder, or problem owner – will describe their situation. The explanation usually begins with a preamble.

“Well, we tried to propose this research a couple of times before, and I’ve lost some energy because my department head is not supporting me, but here’s what I think we could…”

Then they go on to describe the situation, which is when people start taking notes. Rarely does anyone write down the throwaway data:

1) We’ve tried to propose this research couple of times before.
2) I’ve lost energy around it.
3) My department head isn’t supporting me.

We hear those pieces of information as throwaway because it’s part of a preamble. It seems like a disclaimer. Yet it was the data that came first. From that perspective it might be important.

Over and over again when solutions present themselves, we’ll look back and realize the clues that led to the insight are often pointed at when we didn’t think we were really talking about the problem. They come during those first thirty seconds, when what was said was so obvious it didn’t seem worth noting.

Sometimes throwaway data comes out when someone makes a joke. The reason a joke is funny is because it turns over an assumption, that’s the gag. But once the assumption is brought to light, no matter how mundane, capture it. Often challenges have to do with assumptions – limits we’re putting on ourselves – that we don’t even know we’re making.

Here’s an example, courtesy of Juan Prego, a Spanish colleague of ours who had the opportunity to work in China. He noticed that if you go to IKEA in Beijing you’ll find people sleeping all over the store. He uses this as a riddle to help people see how we make assumptions and overlook key information.

Why do the Chinese sleep at the IKEA store?

One of the first things people say is, “because it’s comfortable.” And Juan will say, “that’s good information, but it’s not the answer.” The questions and guesses continue: Because they don’t have homes? Because they don’t have beds at their homes? Because they work there and it’s too far to go home? It’s part of the furniture displays? They’re testing the beds? The answer to all these questions is no. People rarely go back to their first thought, even though they were told it was good information, because it’s not clever enough. It’s too obvious. It’s throwaway data. Yet it holds an important piece of information. Make a list of what makes a place comfortable to sleep, you’ll have the answer.

When you’re thorough about collecting information around a problem, you’ll get back to the throwaway data anyway. Then the trick is figuring out which pieces of throwaway data hold the key. That’s why you capture all of it. If it’s written down, you can review it and pick something that you’ve not yet explored.

Nothing is too simple. Start with the obvious.

There are articles about how the Chinese use IKEA as an amusement destination, and plenty of blogs with pictures and photographs of sleeping people on the couches and beds of the giant store. None of them seem to mention what Juan learned from one of his Chinese friends: In January, the weather is cold. Many people have little or no heat in their homes. Why do people sleep at IKEA? Because it’s warm. What could be more obvious than that?


Know Further: More tips on fact finding and data gathering. How to hunt and bust assumptions. How to gather and record data so it can be used in problem solving.