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Stop Solving Problems, Start Creating Possibilities

Years ago, I told a friend that I didn’t know how to improve sales for my company. His answer was “You are a great problem solver. You can do anything if you approach it as a problem to be solved.” It felt very empowering to use this lens to view the world; I could use it to get a boyfriend, create a sales pipeline and to become wildly successful! This idea served me for many years. Right until I realized it didn’t serve me at all.

Problem-solving works great for bounded problems; a broken radio, buggy computer code, leaky plumbing. Traditional problem-solving techniques don’t work for unbounded problems; world hunger, gun violence, space travel. It also doesn’t work so well for opportunities, when you turn and opportunity into a problem, you limit the possibilities for the opportunity. Using the example above, increasing sales is not a problem, it’s an opportunity, and the problem solving never did actually work for that one.

Did you ever notice that when you talk to technical people everything seems impossible? I’ve heard people say “when I talk to IT they act like everything is a such a problem!” Think about this for a moment. Technology people are trained in math and computer science. Remember your math homework? Every night you had a set of math problems. In computer science, much of the work is troubleshooting. And we techies love it! It’s fun, it’s a puzzle to solve! But the end result is that we’ve created a problem-first mindset. This is a primary reason that there is such a divide between IT and business teams.

A problem-first mindset closes off the thinking paths to new possibilities. Consider the process for troubleshooting or root cause analysis. You define a problem and then use that definition to keep the discussion and thinking narrowly constrained. You lose the opportunity to look holistically and see the broader context. You shut down the opportunity to make new connections. Instead, we need to shift to a possibility-first mindset.

Did you ever hear innovation/process improvement people ask “what is the problem you are trying to solve?” If you don’t have a problem, many of the process people won’t even work with you. Instead, we could start asking “What is the job to be done?” or “What is the opportunity or desired outcome?” This opens up more possibilities.

Try this...Next time you are embarking on new work, try asking yourself “what is possible?” instead of framing it as “problem-solution”. If you are an IT person, try to hold off on thinking about a solution while you explore what is possible. If you are a business person, try not to define a problem for IT, and instead open up a dialogue on what could be possible to meet the business goals.

Have you noticed yourself thinking in a problem-first mindset? Have you noticed it in others? Let us know!

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