When you are looking at a tricky problem try specifying the ideal answer in a world where there are no constraints. What would a perfect solution look like if we had unlimited resources to achieve it?

In the book Idealized Design, Russell Ackoff, Magidson and Addison describe how Bell labs did just such a thing with the telephone. In the 1950s the VP of Bell labs challenged teams of engineers to design ‘the telephone system with which we would replace the existing system if we were free to replace it with whatever system we wanted.’ The only constraint was that their designs be technologically feasible – i.e. no science fiction. The teams developed their designs and in doing so anticipated every change in the telephone system, except two, that has appeared since then. Among the design criteria they specified were touch-tone phones, consumer ownership of phones, call waiting, call forwarding, voice mail, caller ID, conference calls, speaker phones, speed dialing and mobile phones. They did not anticipate photography by the phone nor an Internet connection. They were thinking 20 to 50 years ahead of their time and many of their ideas could not be realized until technology advanced and became affordable. However, many of their concepts were possible even in the 1950s and they put them into immediate action. One big innovation that came directly from this exercise was the touch-tone phone which generated millions for AT&T in time-saving on calls.

Staff at a major bank looked for an ideal solution for clients’ needs. Someone asked the question, ‘What if banks were open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?’ From this discussion emerged the idea of automatic telling machines – to give customers access to their accounts and money 24/7. Keeping banks open all the time was part of the original ideal solution but it was very expensive. A better answer was to create ATMs.

List the key ideas and attributes of the ideal solution. By focusing on the dream rather than the obstacles we can conceive all sorts of wondrous possibilities. When we start to examine these in more detail we often find that seemingly insuperable barriers can be overcome or worked around.