Making a Profession of Problem-Solving. Member Spotlight: Bruce Tow

Most of our ability to move into the world depends on the capacity to confront and overcome difficulties and challenges that we face. Problem-solving is certainly a fundamental skill in everyday life. Then, there are people like Bruce Tow who managed to transform this crucial ability into a career. With a wide background in the IT field, Bruce stands out as a founder and Principal of SynOvation Solutions, a consulting partnership offering creative solutions to ‘really hard problems’ experienced by enterprises, working groups, and other business environments. As Bruce is close to retirement, he loves to dedicate himself to long hikes in the wild and to writing books resulting from his experiences. He has one published book, ‘Wise: Gaining, Using, and Retaining Wisdom for Lifelong Success’, and several more in course of publication or still to be finalized. Bruce has been a member of MBBI for 12 years since he was deeply inspired by the wonderful commitment of the organization to the good cause of building a more ‘peace-able’ world. With MBBI, he was a contributor to the success of the Nepal Project.

Q and A with Bruce

Let’s start with some background on your life. What did the first steps of your career look like?

I grew up in Northern California and went to Dartmouth College in a small town in New Hampshire, where I earned a bachelor’s in mathematics. After that, I started working in the information technology sector and that would be my main focus for almost 40 years. One well-known company I worked for that you probably have heard of is Oracle Corporation. In IT, I progressed from programming to design, and from design to software architecture. I finished my career doing mostly architecture and in my last job in that field, I was VP and principal architect of a software architecture firm called TenFold. However, I always had in mind a different career, but I had never yet had the means of making it happen. In 2008, when I left my IT job, I decided to take a shot at my dream.

This is how SynOvation Solutions was born?

Yes, this is how I started my profession of independent consulting on solving problems. My previous experience helped me prepare this business. One of the things about software architecture is that the first thing you have to do is to focus on what your customers need by figuring out their industry. Over the years I became increasingly familiar with as many as 50 to 100 industries. These are all slightly different one from the other, but after a while, you can recognize the commonalities between them. When you recognize the commonalities, your work gets a lot faster because you can rapidly figure out what is the same and what is different. My ‘Wise’ book discusses this, calling it the ‘Big Nose’ theory. This theory basically thinks of the head as the things that are in reality about the same between industries, and the nose is what is different. Once you realize the head’s basic shape, you can focus on the nose. Eventually, after you recognize that pattern and you have learned a lot of head shapes, it is very efficient to learn what somebody really needs. 

And how it is now?

What I do now is that when businesses have problems, usually due to a mixture of things, I am able to propose creative and effective solutions to resolve them. I consider myself a problem-solver to all intents and purposes. At SynOvation Solutions, we focus on problems of a particular type, what I call ‘really hard problems’, the nastiest ones, the ones that typically involve a lot of different factors, and which are usually multidisciplinary.

About seven years ago, I moved with my wife to Boston to be closer to our daughter, thanks to the fact that my type of business allows me to be physically located pretty much anywhere.

At this time, I have only three clients left as I get closer to retirement from consulting.

What is special about ‘Really Hard Problems’ (from the title of the book you are about to publish)?

When you are faced with a really hard problem, the first thing you should not do is to try to solve it, even though our strong inclination is to just jump in and solve the problem. If you try to solve it before you understand it – and it is not always easy to understand – then you are probably going to solve the wrong problem or not solve it at all. Instead, once you realize you have a really hard problem, you need to understand it first, and not first try to solve it. So, how to understand your problem thoroughly is a key part of my book.

Then, what can help to understand really hard problems?

In the book, I suggest writing the problem down, gathering data about it from a couple of dozen angles including symptoms, affected parties, root causes, financial impacts, and many more, sharing your documentation with other people, getting them to agree or disagree, and adding their details because you may be wrong or at least incomplete about the circumstances surrounding the problem. At some point, you realize that you really do now understand your problem enough to then focus on an effective solution.

Problem-solving and hard problems, how does all this connect to mediation? 

While I started doing consulting, I came to the conclusion that a particularly critical area of friction for enterprises was dealing with human conflict. In the business environment, I started to notice that some of the biggest problems were interpersonal issues, or include a component of conflict. It could be conflict between people, conflict between organizations, or between people and organizations, there are many possibilities. For example, terminology – the way words are used – can be a source of conflict particularly between people from different areas of specialty. This led me to train as a mediator in San Francisco. Since then, I mainly volunteered as a mediator for community mediation centers and other local mediation organizations. The mediations that I have done helped me to polish my ability to work comfortably within the space of human conflict and not get caught up in it, which means I can think clearly about solutions in these situations.

I guess that mediation paved the way to the encounter with MBBI.

Absolutely. At the time I got into mediation, I began looking around for an organization of mediators and by word of mouth I found MBBI. It looked like a promising organization, so I joined and have stayed a member ever since. What kept me here is that MBBI is doing tremendously good work with a mindset that is similar to mine in the sense of what is important about mediation. I have never really seen myself as a professional mediator, rather more as an amateur or volunteer level mediator, but I have tried to keep in touch. 

More practically, did you get involved in any MBBI projects

After I joined MBBI, I for a short time joined one of their project teams, the Nepal project. I did not physically travel there but I hope I provided the team with useful insights. In Nepal, MBBI was dealing with a number of issues. One of the biggest challenges was related to the rehabilitation of child soldiers from the civil war there that occurred between 1996 and 2006. By using some of my problem-solving methods and techniques, I supported the team by doing research determining that the core of some problems was related to the fact that one of the Nepalese political parties, headed by former rebel leaders, was apparently covertly blocking any reinstatement of the child soldiers because they considered those former child soldiers to be a potential resource as an army in situ if they decided to restart the war. Once we spotted the problem, it was easier to go straight at the heart of the issue and make the best we could of the situation.

We are getting towards the conclusion of the interview; do you have any final insight to share?

One thing I want to mention is that humor if appropriately used, is extremely useful in conflict resolution. Why? This is partially because humor has the ability to level the playing field between conflicting parties, reducing the stress levels that they are both bringing into it. 

Another conflict-related insight, described in my book ‘Wise’, regards ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ types of mediation. Counter-intuitively, a ‘hot’ (high emotion) mediation is easier than a ‘cold’ (low emotion) mediation – and not the opposite as one might suspect. During a high-emotion conflict, people are very angry, less rational, and cannot use their full brainpower to find solutions. If you can calm them down, they are more likely to figure out a solution on their own, while before they were blinded by anger and unable to think clearly. When emotions are low, people are already using their rationality, and much harder to guide them to find fresh insights. 

Written by Matteo Piovacari: MBBI Writer