The Problem of the Pine Trees

Dappled Old Growth Pines

How many pine trees are in a forest?

Sophomore year of High School, early fall.

My best friends and I are bundled in jackets and hoodies, tramping through the woods behind the school. It is a Sunday afternoon, and we are scrambling to finish an Honors Biology assignment. Our teacher, Mr. Baer, had a reputation as an eccentric hard-liner, the kind of teacher who seemed to revel in giving unusual assignments then leaving us to our own devices. The current task was no exception:

“How many pine trees are there in the strip of forest behind the  parking lot?”

We counted for hours, going home only after sunset when frost and curfew set in. All in all, we tallied about 350 trees, from scrawny saplings to giant hemlocks — and flunked the lab.

“You failed to clearly define the problem,” Mr. Baer scolded. Apparently there was a correct answer, about 10 or so, defined as the number of trees of a certain diameter in a certain defined area of the woods.

The difference between arriving at the solution & getting stuck in the woods

On a recent project, the strategy team needed to understand the legacy of an organization we would be working with for the next six months. Rather than focus on strategy documents and reviewing the organization’s product portfolio, we spent weeks pouring through old leaflets and newsletters, trying to gleam information from years of ad-hoc communications.

Meanwhile, the brand team was rocketing past us with a well-defined problem, “we need to craft a new identity and architecture, that better markets the organization’s portfolio to existing audiences, while promoting a few key products to a new segment.”

The night before the brand reveal was scheduled, the creative director pounded on our door demanding the reclassification of the product portfolio for their new architecture. We were still in the woods.

Had we clearly defined the problem, “we need to know how the organization is structured today, what products and services are targeted for which audience group and how the organization’s legacy might impact a new classification” we would have focused our attention on two or three key strategic documents, and gotten much more in depth more quickly — and still returned to the leaflets at a later, tactical stage in the project.

Instead, by asking “we want to know about the organization’s brands,” we were giving the scrawny saplings an equal strategic value to the towering hemlocks.

Photo credit: clarkmaxwell / FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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