The problem solver

fresh from Yale with a bachelor's degree in history and a spot in the Ivy League school's swimming record book, Christopher Hoenig set off for Europe in 1980 in search of adventure and his life's work. After six months of knocking on doors, he landed a job in Holland creating a product that delivered real-time shipping information to companies through videotext on ordinary television sets. Although the young Californian spoke not a word of Dutch on arrival, he soon was fluent enough to announce the product launch on television in his new second language.

The experience confirmed for Hoenig that he had a flair for business, and it taught him something more. At first he'd attributed difficulties in getting Dutch employees to collaborate to language differences. But once he spoke the language, he realized that was not the root cause. "The problem was much more their vocabulary, their mind-set, their experience base. It was how they communicated and thought," says Hoenig, who left the growing transport information venture, Transpotel BV, for graduate school-first at Cambridge and then the Fletcher School of Law and International Diplomacy-where he ruminated on what three years in The Hague had taught him.

Hoenig, at 24, had found his mission: creating a lingua franca for problem solvers.

"I got the idea that there had to be a way to capture some of the common elements of how people really solve problems and work things through together," recalls Hoenig. He spent a decade putting his ideas into practice with McKinsey and Co., a firm that specializes in corporate trouble-shooting around the globe, and the General Accounting Office. Now Hoenig is an entrepreneur and author, spreading his gospel of problem solving through a start-up company, Exolve Inc. The firm provides software, training, business strategies and a new book, The Problem Solving Journey: Your Guide for Making Decisions and Getting Results (Perseus Publishing, 2000).

Hoenig launched Exolve two years ago with a straightforward business plan: to sell government and private sector clients software tools and expertise that they can use to unravel problems. His book offers seasoned advice drawn from the examples of dozens of diverse achievers from the worlds of business, finance, government, the military, science, literature and even sports. Hoenig's paragons run the gamut from Paul Kaminski (who managed the Stealth bomber program for the Pentagon) to the director-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra to Reinhold Messner (who scaled Mount Everest alone) and Ron Barbaro (who devised viatical insurance payoffs for AIDS patients) to the NASA team that put man on the moon to Microsoft's Bill Gates and former Georgetown coach John Thompson (who hugged a player who had just thrown away a shot at the NCAA basketball championship).

These are odd bedfellows, to say the least. But this list is not surprising, considering that Hoenig is an amateur poet as well as an expert in harnessing technology to solve business problems. He grew up in a California home where his parents bridged the divide between science and art: his father, a Ph.D, was a scientist who spent his career at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and his mother was a homemaker and artist who created woodblock prints and quilts. Hoenig got an early introduction to technology and computer programming by noodling around on a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-11, the first 16-bit computer. "I grew up idealizing people who solved big problems. People who won Nobel Prizes and solved big problems were heroes in our household," he says. And, as a high school swimmer, Hoenig came within three one-hundredths of a second of making the U.S. team for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. In those days, he'd spend seven hours a day in the pool, seven days a week.

Today, the 42-year-old Hoenig confines his workouts to hiking, cycling and the gym and channels his competitive drive into his problem-solving ventures. He managed to launch Exolve while writing The Problem Solving Journey, which is dedicated to his wife, Susan Riker, the director of editorial projects at U.S. News & World Report, and their young daughter, Sophia. He had some help from Washington journalist Karen Ball in researching and writing the dozens of abbreviated case studies spliced through the book, but did the final composing and editing himself. He also writes a bimonthly column on leadership for CIO magazine.

Hoenig and colleagues W. Scott Gould and Andrea H. Weiss have gotten Exolve out of the gate on a pay-as-you-go basis, securing contracts with the Defense and Commerce departments for their suite of problem-solving software and techniques and turning a profit in its first 18 months. Exolve also is working with Arthur Andersen on software to solve problems for new residents of San Jose, Calif. The firm's revenues quintupled last year to $3 million, and its staff has grown to 16. One of its biggest projects is building a World Wide Web portal the Pentagon calls IKE-Information Knowledge Exchange-to link the U.S. military's 152,000 information technology professionals worldwide.

"We're not a group of executives who are sending out at 2 a.m. for pizza and Coke, breathlessly trying to meet the next deadline," says Gould, the company's chief operating and financial officer. He is a former CFO for the Commerce Department and a captain in the Navy Reserve. Weiss left a post as corporate vice president and chief information officer at MITRE Corp. to help launch Exolve and become its chief information and technology officer. While at MITRE, she oversaw its work with federal CIOs, which grew from $1 million in 1997 to more than $18 million in 1999.

The Path to Solutions

Hoenig's career has zigzagged between the private and public sectors. He did a stint in 1987 as a volunteer for Missouri Democratic Rep. Richard Gephardt's short-lived presidential campaign. "I became disillusioned with Washington pretty quickly, maybe because I wasn't very good at the politics, but . . . [also] because I felt the people I was working with were talking about problems, but they weren't defining them or solving them very well," he says. "That intensified my desire to get career experience in actually solving big problems."

So off Hoenig went to the Swiss Alps with McKinsey and Co., which runs a mini-MBA boot camp for new hires. He spent the next three years traveling around the world tackling problems for corporate clients, including a European software maker, an aerospace manufacturer and a telecommunications firm. "The goal at McKinsey was to add 15 times your value as a multiple of your fees on every engagement," says Hoenig. "You are hired not just to come in and write a report; you are hired to make change happen."

In 1991, Hoenig made plans to join the General Accounting Office, but they were put on hold when he ran into Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., on a plane. Hoenig, who had taken out conventional student loans to help pay his Yale tuition, pitched the senator an idea for a new type of income- contingent loan. Bradley invited Hoenig to join his staff instead of GAO and put the concept into law. Hoenig spent a year on Capitol Hill, where Bradley got a pilot test of the concept included in the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Hoenig took on even bigger trouble-shooting challenges at GAO, where he worked from 1992 to 1997. He began as an assistant director and within two years was promoted to director of information technology. "I was hired as a quiet revolutionary, to rethink the way GAO did business from the ground up," says Hoenig. GAO afforded a bird's-eye view of a host of problem-solving efforts on an even larger scale than those at McKinsey. "The federal government has the largest organizations on the planet just in terms of size. No matter how big the issues get in business, they don't get as big as they get in government," says Hoenig.

To the newcomer, GAO seemed to be working on low priority issues, spotting problems too late, and not working with the top decision-makers at the agencies they critiqued. Also, says Hoenig, "they didn't eat their own dog food, so to speak. Theydidn't apply the principles in their own organization they were telling other people to apply.

"I turned all those things on their head and asked, 'What if we got out in front, worked with the top decision-makers, were proactive, identified best practices and tried to actually help proactively solve problems?' " he says. "We engineered and designed a whole new way of working with agencies, which was self-assessment as opposed to GAO's assessing them.

"We did a huge self-assessment with the IRS that involved hundreds of SESers across the country, and we used a set of best practices and diagnostic methodology that in a lot of ways was the first version of what ended up in [The Problem Solving Journey]," Hoenig says. "By the second year we set a goal to reform the way the entire government managed technology. We started with research and best practices and trying to influence and develop relationships with agencies and on the Hill and we were lucky enough to come across the people on Sen. [William] Cohen's staff . . . . Together we pulled off the Clinger-Cohen reforms and changed how the government managed technology."

A People Person

Hoenig is "one of the most effective senior executives that has worked at GAO," says his former boss, Gene Dodaro, GAO's chief operating officer. The Clinger-Cohen reforms, bundled into the 1996 Defense Reauthorization Act, established chief information officers across the executive branch and required agencies to make sure that their investments in technology improved performance. "That was Chris' crowning achievement," says Dodaro. Kim Corthell, a longtime lieutenant to former Sen. Cohen, says Hoenig "has a great deal of common sense and a great way of looking at problems and dealing with people."

"He does it with equanimity. He is not a yeller and a screamer. He's a relationship builder," says Hoenig's sidekick Gould. "He's got these world-class problem-solving skills combined with an iron will to get stuff done. He just has a huge capacity." You can almost sense "this sort of Cray computer constantly running in the background" whenever Hoenig is solving a problem, adds Gould, who picked up both an MBA and a doctorate in education while teaching Navy ROTC at the University of Rochester.

Hoenig and Gould first met through their wives in the late 1980s. Their paths crossed professionally in 1994 while they were both working on the Internal Revenue Service's tax system modernization-Hoenig from his vantage point at GAO and Gould as a deputy assistant secretary at Treasury. "We cut our teeth and broke a few teeth on the great beast," Gould says. "We got to go into the lion's den together and come out in one piece. That took a lot of trust, hard work and communication."

rets of Success

If Hoenig and his fledgling company purport to have found a common language that guides problem solvers from many fields, why have they been so open about it?

Hoenig thought about taking a proprietary approach to marketing his ideas and services, but instead chose openness, similar to the way programmers share their ideas and handiwork on the open source operating system Linux. Hoenig considers his book a work in progress that he hopes will be tested and improved by readers' critiques and experiences.

"In terms of building a business, there's no question that we're going to make some money on this, because there's a commercial aspect to it. But we could go about it commercially in a much more tightly closed way than we are," says the Exolve chairman. "In the end, the thing that allows me to really sleep well at night is to know that I have chosen something unique that I think I can contribute to the world."

Hoenig and his partners have applied for two patents on their problem-solving software and techniques. Hoenig also is laying the groundwork for a nonprofit foundation that will draw on "the brightest minds on the planet" to improve education on problem solving. This fits with Hoenig's belief that it takes a combination of "nonprofit, public and private sector approaches to really get something profound done."

Hoenig says his hope is that clients will turn to Exolve and its Solver Suite software to turn the Web "into a problem-solving tool as opposed to just a place where people do searching. Our goal is to help professionals get 80 percent solutions on the first search rather than 20 percent solutions after hundreds of searches."

"The idea of solutions-based government, where government can help citizens solve problems seamlessly for themselves using these kinds of tools and Web technologies more effectively," is critical to federal managers, Hoenig says.

What's in a name

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "exolve" as an obsolete verb meaning to slacken or dissolve. It's not a word likely to turn up anywhere outside of the most obscure crossword puzzles.

But these days it has a new lease on life, at least in the lexicon of Christopher Hoenig's start-up business.

When Hoenig was hunting in 1999 for a name for his new problem-solving venture, he encountered in the writings of Harvard naturalist Edward O. Wilson a longer word from the same root, "exolution," that means "loosening" or "setting free."

The eponymous company puts a bit of its own English on the definition posted on the Exolve Inc., Web site: "Exolve v. [ad. L. ex - out + solvere - loosen]

a. to evolve more intelligently, at a faster rate, and at a higher level,
b. to explosively liberate or set free from one's problems,
c. to realize and create new potential."

"We thought it looked quite good after we'd taken up, examined and discarded a thousand other names," says W. Scott Gould, Exolve's chief operating and financial officer.

The small, growing company dubs itself "the primary source for problem solvers" and says its vision is to become "the place where professionals go for tools and knowledge to improve their problem solving." Among its clients are the Defense and Education departments and the city of San Jose, Calif.


Christopher Connell is a Washington journalist and editor who spent 25 years with the Associated Press before launching his writing and consulting business.
Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook