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It's Not About the Shark

By David Niven

(St. Martin's Press, 230 pages, $28.99)

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For a time, Jaws seemed doomed. The mechanical shark built for Steven Spielberg's first feature film was a complicated colossus. It took an army of people, each working different levers, to control elements of the predator – a fin, an eye, the mouth – but most of the time it was actually out of control. The more they focused on the various problems, the more problems ensued. The young director's planned blockbuster – and perhaps his career – seemed sunk.

But instead of continuing to stare at the problem, Mr. Spielberg looked in a different direction. He asked what Alfred Hitchcock would do and shifted from formulating a Godzilla movie to imagining a Hitchcock thriller. In the process, his mind was grappling with solutions, not problems. What if they focused on the horizon line instead, with the audience unable to predict where the shark might strike? With the shark unreliable, could the suggestion of a shark provide sufficient menace? Millions of terrified moviegoers know the answer.

Psychologist David Niven, in his book It's Not About the Shark, leaps off from that story to provide some kernels of wisdom from research on problem solving. His central point is that we get too caught up in our problems, fixating over them and trying to finesse the details, narrowing our vision so the best solution isn't obvious. "Whatever your problem at work, at home, or in life may be, you can solve them if you are willing to look for a solution instead of staring at the problem. And when you do that, the problem won't be so scary any more," he writes.

This is difficult to do since managers are trained to focus on problems, and solve them. Or, in many cases, eliminate the problem, out of fear. That's what NBC initially decided to do when test audiences hated Seinfeld. Instead, the mediocre Sister Kate got the green light. Why be different? Why be challenging? When an opening came on late night television and nothing else was available, however, Seinfeld got a chance. You know the result. It had been safer for executives to deal with the problem of poor test audience results by ditching the show. But that obscured the possibilities, and what turned out to be a blockbuster show.

In another illuminating example, John Lennon's school performance deteriorated in his teenage years. He became viewed as a problem, and his instructors feared for him and his future – or lack of one. His aunt who raised him saw his guitar playing as a problem: "You'll never make a living at it," she warned the future Beatles frontman. But he was brilliant, a bookworm, reading, writing, thinking – creating poems, cartoons, and later, hit songs. Again, by fixating on what he couldn't do – conventional school work – everyone was missing the possibilities. "Lennon's teachers labelled a problem the most extraordinary student they would ever know," Mr. Niven writes.

Problems help managers to matter. With a problem, he notes, we are consequential. But also dangerous: The famed Milgram psychology experiment that tested deference to authority showed that more than 80 per cent of study participants would be willing to administer "electric shocks" to another individual if it helped the participants to solve a problem.

With problems, the normal tendency is to try harder. But he shares a series of stories of people who kept trying harder and ended up in miserable situations. "It's not that people should give up, never try, never apply themselves. The point is simply this: Turning effort up to an 11 on a 10-point scale is inherently counterproductive – it makes our problems seem bigger and our abilities seem smaller," he writes.

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Confidence in our problem-solving abilities also doesn't help. College basketball coaches have taken more and more control over the plays during games. But over the past 60 years, the numbers suggest that teams have become worse at the most fundamental task: Scoring. They put fewer points on the (fancier) scoreboard now than in 1953.

If that seems like nothing but a litany of problems, he does offer some solutions. It starts with pushing past your first draft – whether a script, an innovative idea, or a change-management program. It helps to put the problem down and take another look later, with a better perspective. Writer Gay Talese pins his first draft to a wall so he can look at it from a distance – sometimes he even uses binoculars – to deal with the manuscript as if somebody else prepared it.

Take a long time, even in today's frenzied work environment, to ponder your problems. "Your best answer is not a pizza. It is not going to be delivered within 30 minutes. But it will come. And when it does, it will be more than you imagined you were capable of doing – and even better than a pizza," he advises.

The book is a fascinating balance of psychological research, anecdotes about interesting people, and practical solutions – simple ideas to help you challenge each of the difficulties he raises about our conventional problem-solving impulses. It's fun reading, and can't help but offer you informative insights.

POSTSCRIPT

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership (Amacom, 129 pages, $19.95) offers wisdom from classical figures like Aristotle, Heraclitus, and Sophocles culled by Long Island University Professors M. A. Soupios and Panos Mourdoukoutas.

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In The Risk Factor (Palgrave Macmillan, 250 pages, $19.85) Silicon Valley-based consultant Deborah Perry Piscione says every organization needs big bets, bold characters, and the occasional spectacular failure.

The Internet is Not the Answer (Atlantic Monthly Press, 273 pages, $31.50) commentator Andrew Keen argues in a far-reaching critique of its impact on society.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail harvey@harveyschachter.com

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