In his book, Lead With a Story, Paul Smith tells about Jayson Zoller’s experience as a student at the University of Central Florida 20 years ago.
One of Jayson’s favorite professors often arranged research projects for the class with community leaders. In one such case, the professor described an unusual project working for a chief district judge. The assignment: to investigate the jury deliberation process and determine how to improve it.
As young idealistic college students, Jayson and his classmates were thrilled to tackle such a noble mission.
The team interviewed dozens of judges, attorneys, former jurors and other court officials around the district. They asked all the questions you would think a smart group of would-be consultants should ask, but to their surprise, the only thing that seemed to matter was the shape of the table in the jury room.
As it turned out, in jury rooms where there was a rectangular table, the juror sitting at the head of the table (even if they weren’t the jury foreman) tended to dominate the conversation, and this inhibited some jurors from freely sharing their points of view.
But in jury rooms that had a round or oval table, the jurors tended to be more egalitarian, and their debate of the facts was more thorough and robust. Thus the team concluded that it was those juries with round or oval tables that came to the most accurate and just verdicts.
A different objective
The students were excited about this finding for two reasons. First, they felt like they had really nailed the key to improving the jury deliberation process. And second, it was such an easy thing to change.
They proudly presented the results to the chief judge, who became excited, too. He issued a decree to all the courthouses in his jurisdiction. “Effective immediately,” he wrote, “all jury rooms that have round or oval tables are to have them removed and replaced with rectangular tables.”
Yes, that’s right. In a direct contradiction to the students’ recommendation, the judge replaced all the round and oval tables with rectangular tables.
Why? Because his objective for improving the jury deliberation process was not to make it more robust, fair, or accurate; it was to make it faster. He wanted to reduce the backlog of cases clogging up his court docket.
This story illustrates the importance of clarifying objectives before embarking on any project. But beyond that, I have found that most people don’t know what constitutes a good objective. A good objective is an ultimate objective, not a solution. People confuse ultimate objectives with solutions all the time.
Ask clarifying questions
The students thought they had a good objective — “to determine how to improve the jury deliberation process” — but there were two challenges that they failed to address. First, they didn’t ask the judge how he defined “improvement.” He would have readily told them that it meant making the deliberation process faster. Instead they made a faulty assumption and were lucky that the project wasn’t a total waste of his time.
Second, even if the students had clarified that the judge wanted to make the deliberation process faster, that still was not his ultimate objective. His ultimate objective was to “reduce the backlog of cases.”
Making the deliberation process faster is just one solution among others for reducing the backlog of cases. Other solutions include hiring more judges, outsourcing the court function to a private company, or training jurors in the process before they start a trial. All of these solutions could have potentially reduced the backlog of cases as well.
If we are going to be effective at innovation, we must know how to distinguish solutions from ultimate objectives.
I have found two questions to be invaluable for this. If the students had asked the judge, “Why is it important to make the jury deliberation process faster?” or “What will that help you to accomplish?” the judge would have readily told them, “It will reduce the backlog of cases,” and bingo, they would have identified his ultimate objective.
When seeking to solve a problem or innovate, discover and focus on the ultimate objective — the job to be done — because only then will you avoid being constrained by current solutions and come up with breakthrough solutions.
(A version of this article first appeared in The Business Journals, May 26, 2017.)