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May 27, 2021

When You Can't See the Real Problem: My Expert Interview With Kristen Cox

Rachel Salaman


When Kristen Cox was at college she was losing her sight. The professionals trying to help her focused on how she could make the most of her remaining vision. Their solution to her problem, as they understood it, involved her hauling a cart around campus, piled high with large-print books.

That approach didn't work.

"It would take me an hour just to read one page in a book with a magnifying glass, with eye fatigue," she recalls, in my Expert Interview podcast. "Actually, at one point, I started thinking I was stupid, like, 'What's wrong with me? I can't keep up in class'."

Then Cox had a revelation – she could get the information she wanted in other ways. She didn't have to see it... she could feel it or hear it instead. The problem wasn't her lack of vision. It was people's attitude toward it. Mindset made all the difference.

"When that changed for me, it really opened up my life," she says.

Are You "Decorating the Fish" Instead of Fixing the Problem?

This insight has impacted her distinguished career as a top public official, and it's one of the many useful lessons in her book, "Stop Decorating The Fish: Which Solutions to Ignore and Which Problems Really Matter," co-written with the entrepreneur and economist, Yishai Ashlag.

In this clip from our Expert Interview podcast, Kristen Cox explains what "Decorating the Fish" really means.

What Are the Seductive Seven Solutions?

Like the townsfolk in the book, and Cox's helpers in college, many of us assume our problems are caused by a lack of something.

We might think we need more technology, for example, more data, a new strategy, or more training and communication. Perhaps a reorganization would do the trick, or do we just need to blame someone for the problem? Or maybe we should throw more money at it, to make it go away.

Cox calls these perceived solutions the "Seductive Seven," because they can be dangerously distracting.

Haunted by Phantom Problems

It reminds me of a job I had at a start-up, years ago. The company failed after a few years, but not before ripping through many of the Seductive Seven.

The company produced multimedia cross-cultural training tools, designed for people living and working abroad. When the initial venture capital ran out, it needed to generate revenue, but no one was buying the product.

The owners upgraded the computers and software, to streamline and accelerate workflow. That didn't boost sales. So they developed a new strategy, which involved switching the focus from corporate clients to consumers. That didn't work either.

Then came the inevitable "blame game." If a product isn't selling, it must be the marketing team's fault. A couple of people were fired and replaced. Again, nothing changed.

The final push was a new influx of capital from a trusting investor, which carried the company through to its collapse a few months later.

All that remedial action made the owners feel like they were tackling the problem. The truth is they weren't even addressing it, because they hadn't figured out what it really was.

Finding the Real Problem: The Customer's Always Right!

"So many of the Seductive Seven are great for management. We can feel successful launching a new initiative or a new strategic plan," Cox observes. "The hardest thing to get in leadership or management, or even in our own lives, is clarity. What is the problem we're trying to solve?"

To identify this in any given situation, we need to adopt the end user's perspective.

"It sounds so simple, but know your goal for your customer... and this is true in product design, it's true for R&D, it's true for value," Cox says.

"You see some of the biggest companies over time losing profit share [because] they started focusing on what they're going to get, not what they're going to give. And I think that's where we can all lose our way."

More Isn't Always Better

If my former employers had focused on the customer experience, the company might still be around today. The product was of high quality and looked great, but the delivery method was awkward. This made it hard for people to access the content. That's why the product didn't sell.

Sometimes, one of the Seductive Seven may indeed be part of the solution. Technology might have helped my former company create a better user interface, for example. But often, we don't lack anything. We just need to take a fresh look at what we already have.

Listen to My Interview With Kristen Cox

Discover fascinating insights from some of the world's leading business figures with my series of Mind Tools Expert Interviews.

Mind Tools Club Members and Corporate Licensees can listen to my full 30-minute interview with Kristen Cox.

If you're not a Mind Tools member, you can join the Mind Tools Club and gain access to our 2,400+ resources, including 200+ Expert Interviews. For corporate licensing, ask for a demo with one of our team.

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