Dastardly Squirrel eating from birdfeederDear Kid,

Once Upon an Age (defined as Before You Were Born), Grandpa was faced with a squirrel conundrum not unlike our very own Squirrel Challenge. Specifically, he was unable to find a way to keep a squirrel off a bird feeder. (Obviously, this was a Most Ingenious Squirrel, because it would really take a rodent of Higher Than Average Intelligence and Foolhardiness to take on your grandfather.)

Rocky SquirrelThe smartest squirrel on record is Rocket J. Squirrel, known to fans as Rocky of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame. (Yep, his full name really is Rocket J. Squirrel.)

Try as he might, Grandpa could not find a way to prevent the squirrel from getting to the birdseed. Before you ask, high explosives were not used—the objective was to protect the birdseed for the birds, not demolish all wildlife within a twelve mile radius.

Turns out that squirrels are quite smart especially given the size of their little brains. They demonstrate all sorts of devious behavior (have I mentioned the stare-down?) like pretending to bury nuts or seeds when another squirrel is watching. They also learn from other animals (like people) and they have a complex communication system (although not quite as complex as the communication network of a teenage girl).

Was Grandpa frustrated? He was. Did he dive into a pit of despair? He did not. Did he head to the freezer for ice-cream inspiration? I have no idea. What did he do? He re-framed the problem.

Let’s recap. Grandpa’s problem was that the squirrel kept getting to the birdfeeder and eating the seeds. Grandpa’s solution? Rename the equipment Bird and Squirrel Feeder. Ta-da! Now the squirrel was an official, expected guest and there was no problem left except for filling the feeder slightly more frequently, and he could handle that.

Why do I tell you this story? (Aside from the fact that it is amusing, I mean.)

Too often when faced with trying to solve a problem, people overlook the question of whether the problem is correctly defined. Then they get stuck in a place where they can’t solve the problem—generally because there is no solution. By redefining the problem so that they can look at things differently, new solutions pop out of the birdfeeder.

Here’s an example of a company that did it right: Xerox. Once Upon an Age (see above definition), Xerox was the copier company. One did not go to the copier, one went to the Xerox (regardless of the manufacturer). [This is all true, pay attention.] If Xerox management had insisted on thinking about their business in terms of copiers, they would probably be out of business by now. But they redefined the question of what they were and created a strategy to be the document company. That left room for them to get into the printer business when everybody and his brother had a home printer. Now Xerox has moved beyond the document company (cloud storage anyone?) and is a business solutions company. They redefined the problem.

The next time you are faced with a problem that seems insurmountable and/or unsolvable, suck in a deep breath and take a moment to think about whether you’re asking the right question (or whether there is another right question to ask).

And please make sure the bird feeders are full. (I haven’t given up the battle yet.)

Love, Mom


I would give Uncle David credit for reminding me of the story of Grandpa and the Squirrel but I have strict policy of never listing sources on the grounds that I generally don’t have any.