We’re all big on problem solving. It’s a key trait we look for in effective employees. It’s the focus of countless books, media programs, and courses. It’s a reason for admiration: who doesn’t like the guy who can fix something that’s broken—whether that thing is a leaky faucet or a messy company balance sheet?
While this focus on problem solving makes sense, it also causes a problem of its own: it keeps us concentrating on issues rather than outcomes.
The Process of a Problem
To see this more clearly, let’s start by taking a look at the typical problem-solving process:
- Someone becomes aware of a problem.
Let’s take a familiar-sounding example: a senator recognizes a budget crisis on the horizon.
- He tells a few people.
The politician shares his concerns with some trusted colleagues on Capitol Hill.
- They share their thoughts with others.
These lawmakers in turn share their own concerns on the looming financial crisis, pulling more politicians and members of the press into the mix.
- As each person comes up with new what if’s, he or she adds additional dimensions to the problem.
Politicians and pundits discuss and debate all the possible end-game scenarios that could result from this budget crisis.
Meanwhile, the problem still exists—and is probably getting worse.
Now, up to this point, the problem has actually been going through a pretty healthy evolution. Many issues in fact need to undergo such a mulling process as they ripen enough to be addressed.
But if we continue down this path, the problem will quickly become more and more nagging, until all parties get stuck in the rut of repeating the issue and all the negative outcomes it could potentially have. At that point, the ensuing steps get ugly:
- As reiterations progress and the problem remains unsolved, people salt their descriptions with more and more urgency and worry, creating disaster scenarios.
- About this time, folks begin to think about blame: Who is to blame? Can I be blamed? Those who choose this path have unwittingly eliminated any chance of becoming part of the solution.
- Meanwhile, a brave few problem solvers are still seeking a solution. But much of this effort is greeted with negativism and recitation of the problem in its full and unwieldy complexity.
A Different Approach
I encourage my clients to take a completely different approach: before the ugly steps kick in, create a positive vision of the problem solved.
Take note: this is not a vision of the solution. Focusing on solutions quickly leads us to ask how, but this tool deliberately skips over that question.
Why Skip How?
By focusing on how to solve a problem before defining your vision of the problem solved, you’re setting yourself up for frustrating and unnecessary challenges. It’s like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together without that picture on the top of the box—the one that shows you what the final image should look like.
Without the big picture to guide you along the way, you’ll have a much harder time getting the right piece into the right place, because you’ll never have a clear idea of exactly what you’re looking for.
How to Skip How
Get the team together and ask them to spend a few days thinking about the problem in a new way.
First, ask them to stop looking for causes or blame.
Then, ask them to write down a description of what your world looks like once the issue has already been fixed. Give them the analogy of the jigsaw puzzle.
The first few times you try this approach, you’ll notice that your team keeps reverting to the how question:
“But how will we make that happen?”
“Sure, that sounds great. But how will we do it?”
This is a natural reaction, because most of us are oriented to solve problems by thinking about actions rather than outcomes. So be patient and train yourself to listen for how—or bring in an outside perspective to monitor the conversation and keep you on track. Remind your people that at this point, you’re just drawing the picture. How will come later.
With practice, you’ll find that a whole new climate emerges from this approach. Freed from the early shackles of how, your creative people will be more enabled to dream up revolutionary outcomes. And those dreams will help your solvers reframe their approach, allowing them to pursue new directions as they define the how steps down the road.