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What to do when a crazy customer holds a loaded gun to your head: How to use impossibility remediation skills – Part I


So, you’ve slaved away long and hard, begged and borrowed the funds to get your business up and running. Finally, you have the right people and systems in place. The money’s coming in without you having to stay up all night to hand hold each sale through.

You ease up the hours a little and relax. You even making some social appointments with the friends who haven’t deserted you while you were busy building your business. You start telling the news to anyone who will listen that you Own Your Own Business, and you know what? It’s pretty darn good.

And then, something happens.

Your wonderful, indispensable assistant has a family emergency and calls in at ten to nine to tell you she’ll be in far north Queensland for the next three weeks – exactly the time you’d planned the launch of a new product. PayPal closes down your account because it thinks you’re laundering money. And your garage, which doubles as a warehouse for all your stock, floods with unexpected heavy rainfall.

Successful entrepreneurs solve problems that a lot of people have: inventing a neat app that monitors blood chemistry constantly for people with diabetes and other conditions, creating a way to help people make decisions with minimum information and process or making art that is functional, inspirational and… flat packed!

But what happens when you have the problem, not your customers? This is when “impossibility remediation” becomes the hottest skill on the block.

I had the privilege of interviewing John T Unger, artist and, in his own words, a specialist in impossibility remediation. “My speciality is impossibility remediation: if it can’t be done, I’m on it.”

How about being sued to overturn copyrights for your own designs? Or your entire studio collapsing after heavy snowfall, cutting off the gas (and therefore heating) until spring and taking your work with it? Or, why not try a crazy customer holding a gun to your head and describing in fetishist detail what would happen once he pulled the trigger?

All these are true and, have happened to Unger.

So, just how does this extraordinary and profitable artist “remediate impossibility”?

Step one: practice thinking widely

To be good at anything, takes practice: in his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites 10,000 hours as the figure to aim for. Unger has become good at “remediating impossibility” by practice, but not always in dramatic and life threatening situation. His first practice can be described as thinking widely. Here’s an example of what that means.

Unger loves working with recycled materials to create his art. His most well-known creations are firebowls; mesmerising and functional sculptures crafted from gas canisters in steel. At one point, he thought of using discarded tyres to create his art; after all, there is always a consistent and plentiful supply of them around.

As he wondered how to create something innovative from discarded tyres, he came across a guy who was using off cuts of exotic wood to make spanking paddles (yes, paddles that people like to get spanked with!). Wouldn’t it be fun to make spanking panels that left a tyre tread mark across your derrière?

In 2006, Unger won the Top Fetish Trendsetter award from AVN Magazine, the premier magazine in the adult products market, for the most innovative product. Even today, he still gets requests to make Badass Paddles although he stopped making them long ago for reasons he explains later.

In the words of the man himself, “As an artist, I believe that almost nothing is impossible but many things are less than obvious. Ultimately, the solution to many problems is to approach from the side, or behind, or upside down or backwards. Part of what makes me good at this kind of problem solving is that I practice all day long by reversing and inverting ideas to see what else they hold when held up to a mirror.”

“So, I’ve gotten in the habit of reversing, inverting, subverting, or combining random statements to see if there’s a great truth hiding there that maybe no one has noticed yet – I intentionally try to misread any clichés I run across.” [1]

In short, practice and make it a habit to see problems from as many angles and perspectives as possible- think widely.

If you want to learn the other secrets to being a badass impossibility remediation specialist, without getting tyre tread marks across your backside, watch out for Part II of my interview with John T Unger!

Melissa Kirby is a strategist, troublehunter and lawyer. While she has fun being Associate General Counsel at Honeywell, all opinions are personal and her own.

[1] http://lateralaction.com/articles/art-mistakes/, 2 July 2012.

Photo courtesy of http://www.johntunger.com/