Problem-Solving is one of the skills the World Economic Forum (WEF) considers essential to survival in workplaces of the future (which are here and now).
Now you can teach it to your kids thanks to the Stinky and Dirty Show on Amazon Prime Video!
Problem-solving and the industrial revolution
In one of his lessons, Professor Giorgio Nardone, the co-creator of the Strategic Problem Solving model with Paul Watzlawick from Palo Alto, highlighted to me the importance of ensuring children fall in love with problem-solving. Indeed, it is a good idea to place children into situations in which they have to overcome minor problems daily.
This challenge is even greater for “helicopter parents” like me!
According to the research paper The Future of Skills – Employment in 2030 by Pearson, Nesta and Oxford Martin School, in 2030 our working environment will be influenced by the following:
Technological and demographic change, globalization, the need for more sustainable growth for the planet, growing urbanization and political uncertainty. These are just some of the challenges we will face as a result of the what the WEF calls the fourth industrial revolution. I also mention this in my introduction to the concept of professional innovation. Research also tells us that Problem Solving is one of the most important skills we need to be able to survive the fourth industrial revolution, whatever our chosen profession may be.
The Stinky and Dirty show
By pure chance (aka they are driving me crazy on a rainy Sunday and when every other resource had been explored) I showed my children the Stinky and Dirty Show, a kids cartoon series, on Amazon Prime Video. I admit I immediately fell in love with the show and I even started watching it with my kids.
They loved the quirky adventures of the two main characters – Stinky, the garbage truck, and Dirty, the backhoe loader. While I was watching, I began to notice that various aspects of cartoon’s stories had something in common with the principles of Design Thinking: a method which helps individuals and teams develop practical and innovative solutions for problems.
I am a Design Thinking devotee. In fact, I have been applying its principles to people and team innovation projects for my corporate clients for a long time. I’ve found that designer-mindset based Design Thinking is very effective for problem-solving. The process involved is, however, quite complex to explain. In fact, I had been searching for a simple and immediate way to illustrate it for some time. Now, I’ve found it!
How it came about and why
The Stinky and Dirty Show is an Amazon Prime Video cartoon series about the exploits of two friends: Stinky, a garbage truck, and Dirty, a backhoe loader. The clue is in the names 🙂
The cartoon series is based on the books of Jim and Kate McMullan and was produced by Guy Toubes (thank you Guy!). It was shown for the first time in the US in 2015. In each episode, the two unlikely heroes find themselves facing all sorts of problems. The rest of the episode is about how the duo solve these problems.
The problem-solving aspect of the show caught the attention of educator and “The Gift of Failure” author Jessica Lahey. Her opinion mirrors my own thoughts: “What I love about Stinky and Dirty is their ability to learn by playing and trying to understand what works and, as a teacher, I can say that this is the best way to learn”.
In 2017 the Parents’ Choice Award for Television gave The Stinky and Dirty Show first prize. The program’s innovative approach to teaching children problem-solving skills was noted:
“Preschoolers (and their families) need plenty of problem solving skills. […] this program is more about the process of assessing a situation and searching for potential solutions, and sticking with it even if the first attempt at solving the problem doesn’t always produce the desired result.”
The show has also been recently nominated for the 10th-annual Kidscreen Awards, an award celebrating the best in children’s TV production, broadcasting and digital media.
The Stinky and Dirty designer
The Stinky and Dirty duo teach children, and adults, how to confront and solve problems through analysis and the use of available resources. Stinky, the garbage truck and the most creative character, uses objects he finds in his trash truck “body” and his beloved trash dump. He makes do with what he has and wastes nothing. Dirty, on the other hand, is the more rational member of the team who’s into controlling processes.
Stinky and Dirty’s adventures always involve a problem. The two heroes then go about solving the problems and considering all the challenges the problem-solving process poses. Their main aim, though, is to understand the characteristics of the problem they face.
Their approach mirrors that of the initial phase of the Design Thinking process. How many times, in fact, have we been unable to find solutions simply because we have not understood the underlying problem?
I’m willing to bet you have found yourself in meetings where all you do is search for solutions. And this leaves you with the strange sensation something is not right … You know what I mean, don’t you?
In such situations, the reason for that uncertainty is our natural tendency to try to find solutions too soon. The net result of these ‘problem solving’ sessions is that none of the solutions really solve the real problem. Since nobody fully understands the problem, everybody ends up frustrated with the solution.
Learn from mistakes
Stinky and Dirty use the same, efficient, approach to problem-solving as children. The two friends make simple assumptions about the nature of the problem. Indeed, by changing something, you begin to understand just what the problem is. Stinky and Dirty then test their solutions with little experiments. That they try and fail does not worry them. They keep on trying and eventually they are successful. What Stinky and Dirty are doing is demonstrating how to learn from our mistakes…
Very often Stinky and Dirty try to change how they look at a problem to see it with new eyes. They put themselves in the shoes of others or ask themselves what would happen if the circumstances were completely different. Maybe the writers of Stinky and Dirty are familiar with William James’ words: “Genius is none other than the ability to observe reality from non-ordinary perspectives”.
Once you understand the characteristics of a problem, solutions emerge. Using the most abundant of resources – the earth, Dirty often uses sketches (and often Stinky)to help him to understand a problem.
This the concept of the “third object” — discussed in detail in the book I helped to co-create Business Model Team by Tim Clark (Penguin)– one that’s often implemented in the real world using visual Canvas. Illustrations, unlike words, tend to be more linear. Moreover, they allow us to share concepts much more clearly and this helps everyone understand.
Dive in and find solutions
Only once the characteristics of a problem are clear is it brainstorming time.
Solving problems on one’s own is not easy. This is why brainstorming sessions are so effective. As the old adage goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. We can build on each other’s ideas. During the cartoons, Dirty often goes quiet for a moment while he reflects on a situation. Seeing what his chum is doing, Stinky says “I know what you’re doing, you’re thinking! Get help! Get help”. A good idea for some kids (and many grown-ups btw) who sometimes forget others can’t read their minds!
And this is the moment when Stinky and Dirty chant their magic phrase “what if” – just the same as in the divergent phase of Design Thinking.
The cartoon even has a song for the brainstorming phase, a tune my children often hum. Sometimes, when I find the kids stuck and unable to come up with a solution to a problem, I even hum it to them.
Judging others is not part of the brainstorming process. Instead, you need to build freely upon each other’s ideas showing the utmost mutual respect and always taking advantage of strengths as well as using the resources that you have available at that precise moment. Typically, in the case of Stinky and Dirty, this means junk!
For Stinky and Dirty trash is a tool.
Once they have found the solution, Stinky and Dirty never waste time. They immediately build a prototype and test it to see if it works. If it does not, they refine it until they have solved the problem. Thanks to their high degree of problem-solving expertise, they often make new friends in the process!
Further reading and watching
- In his blog and in his book “Change by design”, Tim Brown, one of the “fathers” of Design Thinking, explains very clearly how to use and manage this approach to problem-solving.
- Here is the best design thinking book “Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers” by my favorite business professor Jeanne Liedtka
- The Annual Review of Psychology illustrates, instead, how important it is to teach children problem-solving skills.
- My favorite “future of work” book is “Humility is the new smart” by Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig.
- And here, you’ll find some suggestions and ideas on how to involve children in problem-solving.
- And here are even more activities for both children and adults.
Why not watch a few episodes of The Stinky and Dirty Show too? Along with your kids, obviously 😉