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How Problem Solving Can Create More Problems

Chuck Blakeman, writing for Inc. Magazine* states, “Business leaders are taught to be relentless problem solvers. But that focus traps them in a downward spiral of reactive problem-solving that feels more like a hostage situation than leading.”

He goes on to say, “A problem, once solved, merely restores the status quo. Solving it gets you back to where you were before the problem arose but brings no lasting difference to the situation. A staff member quits, we recruit a new one, and now we're right back where we were. The customer gets angry, we send them flowers and give them a credit, and we're back on an even keel with them. But nothing has changed.”

Blakeman is addressing a common phenomenon we have also witnessed in our work with individuals and organizations. We refer to it in our book,Thriving in Business and Life, and our new online course, as the “problem/solution trap.”

But wait a minute, we might say, “Identifying a problem and then creating a solution seems like a reasonable enough tactic. What’s wrong with this approach?”

Well, for starters, it’s one of the quickest ways to lose sight of both our guiding vision and an accurate sense of what actually matters within that context.

The problem/solution approach can be a bit like the old amusement park game, “Whack a Mole.” As soon as you knock down one mole, another one pops up from a different hole. In other words, you solve one problem only to see another one pop up. Before you know it, the problems are running the show, taking you off on tangents that steer you farther and farther off course.

Einstein knew about this problem. He advised that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Or as Blakeman put it, "A problem, once solved, merely restores the status quo."

Let’s look into that comment more deeply. To do so, we’ll refer to another quote attributed to Einstein that can be mistakenly used to defend the problem/solution approach.

“If I were given an hour in which to solve a problem that would save the planet,” the quote goes. “I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and 5 minutes solving it.”

It's easy to overlook the actual foundation of this statement . . . the one that underpins the whole beauty of Einstein's thinking. The visionary context he identifies upfront is to save the planet. Without this contextual framework, focusing on the problem could easily lead one off into the weeds, in directions that utterly miss the objective.

This is a crucial key:

The vision defines our ultimate core objective. It is within this context that the problem must be solved.

If solving the problem becomes the core objective—without direct reference to our values-infused, visionary context—we're in danger of losing our way.

Bottom line:

Problem/solution strategies tend to be reactionary, which means that the problem is in charge.

Vision/navigation strategies are proactive. Vision—more specifically, your vision—leads the way.

Here’s an example, taken from a scenario that nearly unraveled a Fortune 500 company. Let’s say you learn that your customers are suddenly switching to a competitor whose products are less expensive and more innovative.

The problem-solution paradigm could lead to a knee-jerk reaction that has you abandon your own vision and brand identity that have been based on safety, enduring value, and customer-centric design. In a reactionary state, focused on retaining customers, you could begin to adopt your competitor's strategy of creating innovative products at increasingly lower prices.

The problem with this thinking?

It ignores other significant factors that are also part of this scenario. For instance, that your competitor’s products have some genuine safety issues. And, they don’t last nearly as long as yours.

The problem-solution model could pull you away from your core principles and into a battle of one up-man-ship with your competitor’s values instead of your own. This could lead (as it still might with company in the case study), to diving into a complicated design and price war that unintentionally commoditizes your own products, thus reducing their real value in the marketplace.

The vision-navigation method, however, would help you look more deeply into the heart of the matter. You would meet this challenge by making your own primary values even more applicable, obvious and attractive to customers, while inspiring your own teams to dig more even more deeply into them to reinforce your vision, brand, and your long-term competitive advantage..

You might reset your sights on a vision like this:

“We involve our customers at every step of a product’s design to ensure that our highly innovative products have enduring quality, and are wonderfully useful, safe, and affordable.”

You see the difference?

The problem/solution trap can lead us down blind alleys into "either/or" choices. Vision/navigation, on the other hand, looks to address problems within a visionary context and therefore leads us to a level of "both/and" thinking that inspires innovative breakthroughs.

Old Paradigm:

Follow the problem to temporary solutions that pull you off track and don’t really address the deeper issues and causes.

New Paradigm:

Lead with your own vision, aligned with your values, to reinvigorate your own deeper cause. This allows you to leverage the “problem” as the means of generating a more evolved solution that lasts.

Here's your Thriving Challenge for the week:

Create or review a detailed vision of what you want, based on your values. Next, identify a challenge or problem and place it within the context of your values-infused vision.

Now use your imagination, asking “What if?” to develop innovative strategies that keep you on course. Using vision as your compass, begin experimenting with simple actions to navigate towards your goal. Feel the difference between letting the problem lead vs leading with your vision.

Will Wilkinson and Christopher Harding

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