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Are You Solving the Right Problem?

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Albert Einstein once said, “If I only had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” And while I don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Einstein about the ratio, I think his quotation does highlight a common mistake that leaders and their teams make in the creative thinking process, and it’s this:

If you jump to solutions too quickly, you may find you’re solving the wrong problem.

If you jump to solutions too quickly, you may find you’re solving the wrong problem. #creativity #leadership Click To Tweet


Look, I get it. When a problem comes up, it might be a critical situation. Everything screams to a halt until the problem is solved, and that’s not good for business.

So there’s a sense of urgency: “We need to solve this problem now!”

Plus, solving a problem feels good, doesn’t it? I’m guessing some smarty-pants brain scientist has done some research showing that when we solve a problem, our brain gives us a little shot of dopamine. But even in the absence of such research, you know that it feels good to be able to look at a problem that you’ve just solved and say, “That’s done!”

So the temptation is strong to jump directly to the solution phase of the problem-solving process. Often when we do this, though, what we end up solving is not the problem, but simply the immediate symptom of the problem. We think we’ve put an end to it, but the root problem still exists, and will eventually reappear as a new symptom. And so the cycle will repeat itself, leading to more interruptions, more work stoppages, and more frustration.

Are you solving the problem, or just a symptom of the problem? #leadership Click To Tweet

So what’s the solution to this vicious cycle? (And yes, I get the irony of me jumping directly to the solution phase in an article pointing out the dangers of doing just that.) The solution is to take a tip from Albert Einstein. When a problem comes up, instead of rushing headfirst to the solution, do a bit of regression analysis. Ask yourself—or your team—“What caused this situation?” Then, once you’ve identified the cause, ask, “Okay, what caused that situation?” And then keep going, further and further back.

“But Bill,” you ask quite reasonably, “how far back should I go? If we take this to its logical extreme, every problem will end up back at the Big Bang, and we’ll have wasted a lot of time getting there.”

Fair point. I would encourage you not to take your regression all the way back to the Big Bang. So where do you stop?

Ideally, you stop when you reach a systemic cause. Yes, put a Band-Aid® on the symptom if necessary. You need to stop the bleeding. But see if there is a deeper root cause in your systems and/or policies. Perhaps the real reason for that customer complaint is that, at a system level, your company policies don’t empower your front line employees to make even limited customer service decisions. If that’s the case, offering the customer a discount or a refund will take care of the immediate problem, but not the systemic problem behind the problem.

As a leader, it’s your job to dig a little deeper, search a little harder, and solve the real problem.

Come to think of it, Einstein’s ratio may have been right after all.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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