Has this ever happened to you: You were talking to someone about a problem you're experiencing. Then, before you have a chance to finish, they chime in with: "You know what you need to do?" or: "Oh I have just the answer for you."
Or for those in more corporate settings, the expert that comes through the door to spruik a particular solution or methodology without really understanding whether it's relevant for you.
Whenever this happens to me, it always leaves me with a slightly bitter aftertaste. That the person who was talking to me wasn't as interested in understanding what my problem was; they were more interested in presenting me with a solution.
Now I want to make it clear that I'm not attributing bad faith here - I believe that most people are genuinely just trying to help - but I do think that we are living in a era of solutions. A world in which the emphasis is more on having the answer, rather than taking time to understand the problem.
There's a few reasons why I think this is an issue.
At an individual level, whenever we reach for solutions without understanding the problem, we're often unconsciously reaching for a quick fix that we think addresses our problem at a surface level.
As a simple example, let's look at anyone who ever signed up to a gym membership only to stop a month later. The simple (and perhaps most common) thought process here is:
Problem: I want to get fit / lose weight. How do I do that?
Simple solution: Get a gym membership.
For the vast majority of people, this doesn't work, as evidenced by the high rates of abandoned new year resolutions. Now, at this point, if you're thinking to yourself: "Oh - that's because most people don't know how to form good habits." or some variation of that, then you have also just landed in solutions mode.
My point is that the problem of getting fit or losing weight can be quite different for everyone. Sure, the issue could be an inability to form habits. But just as equally the problem could be a stressful lifestyle that causes overeating; it could be that the gym is not a stimulating enough environment for many people (as compared to a team sport, for example); or it could be the quality and quantity of food consumed. These are all legitimate problems that result in unhealthy lifestyles, but the solutions to these problems are unlikely to be related to getting a gym membership.
As someone who is also intimately familiar with the corporate / business world, I see a great deal of solutions-focused thinking too. Startup founders who push a solution without understanding what problems they solve. Leaders who commit to strategies without understanding what outcomes they desire. Or any number of experts and consultants who push technology solutions and methodologies without considering its fit for purpose.
These are all hats I've worn throughout my career, so let me share one personal example: In the early stages of growing my business, I hired a Facebook marketing agency to help me with sales. At the time, I thought that I needed to be on Facebook because well... doesn't everyone use Facebook? I read up on all the Facebook marketing strategies, learned about growth hacking, spent hours creating content strategies, and wasted a lot of money.
It wasn't until much later that I stopped to think: "Is Facebook even right for me?" It was at this point that I realised that I fell into the solutions trap.
We're now living in an increasingly complex and distracted world in which we are bombarded with micro and macro decisions on a daily basis. We're also living in a highly technological environment that can provide us with easy to access solutions. In 3 simple steps. And shows up on Page 1 of our Google search.
These two factors combined are contributing to what I believe is a deeper, underlying issue: That we are less encouraged to genuinely slow down, reflect, and think deeply on understanding what the problems really are.
Because we don't take the time to understand what the problem really is, we don't necessarily know whether the solutions we've found are truly appropriate or merely expedient.
If we look at the classic leadership axiom of: "Don't come to me with problems, bring me solutions," within that statement there is a sneaky little assumption: The person bringing forth the solutions has undertaken a sufficiently deep understanding of the problem.
For fans of Carol Dweck's 'Mindset', I also propose that focusing too heavily on solutions actually nudges us towards a Fixed Mindset. Once we have the solution to a problem, then well... that's it. We have the answer. We're done.
We can sometimes see this manifest in people who become fixated on a single solution, and are willing to explore alternatives. Or in the business world, we see organisations, leaders, and experts that have stagnated; they have stopped innovating and creating because they've become fixated on the solutions that they know.
All of these people have succumbed to being in a Fixed Mindset, but another way of putting this is that they've focused too heavily on the solution. To move back into the Growth Mindset, they would need to start asking: "Is this the right solution? Does it actually address the problem? Has the problem changed? How effective is my solution?"
On the flip side and shining a torch on ourselves, living in the 'Era of Solutions' means that we might also be unconsciously giving other people solutions without considering their problems. That when we leap to offering a solution, what we're doing is offering a solution that has worked for us.
It's certainly important to help other people, and it definitely feels good when we are able to help people out in meaningful ways. But without first understanding the problem, without practicing active listening and active empathy, we really aren't helping people solve their problems, we're simply pushing our own solutions.
At this point, you might think that I've got a vendetta against solutions but I want to be clear that's not my point. Yes, we absolutely need solutions however my argument is that we need to hold solutions lightly, and that we need a greater willingness to focus on problems.
We need to take time to be curious about understanding what the problems really are so that we can find the right solution that is relevant, fit for purpose, and creates the outcome that we want to create.
And simply by being curious, it can help us move into the Growth Mindset, to be agile and adaptable, to be able to find creative and innovative solutions for ourselves and our businesses.
So how can you be curious about problems? I don't have an answer, but I do have a few questions:
Questions about you:
Questions about others:
If you appreciated this article, you should check out how I put this approach into practice in my quest to understand what it means to be 'purpose-driven'.