Why You Don’t Need to Solve Every Problem

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How much time are you wasting trying to solve problems that could simply be eliminated?

I once spent nearly an entire summer trying to solve a problem. But when I finally came around to eliminating the problem instead, the “solution” seemed so simple! Here’s what happened.

I was the producer of a sketch comedy TV show in Seattle called Almost Live! We were a one-hour show, airing Sundays at 6pm (a terrible time for sketch comedy, by the way). In addition to sketch comedy, the show also featured a different comedian each week (Jerry Seinfeld appeared four times!), a live band, and one or more guest spots. The problem was the guest spots. Back in the early days of the mid-80s (for you kids out there, this was just after the invention of fire), nobody wanted to come to Seattle. This was before Microsoft, before Nirvana, even before Starbucks. Seattle wasn’t yet “cool.” So it was difficult convincing celebrity guests to fly up to the land of rain and lumberjacks.

The problem got compounded when our original host left, and we quickly found out that the new host’s considerable strengths didn’t include interviewing celebrity guests. Our ratings dropped, and in our fifth year the show was on the verge of cancellation. During the summer hiatus, it was my job as producer to solve the problem. Here’s the thought process I went through:

  1. “How can we fix the interview spots? Can I get coaching for our host? Can I increase the guest budget to try to get better guests? Can I somehow reformat the interview segments?” This process took a couple of weeks. Finally, in desperation, I entered phase two.
  2. “This is going nowhere. I wish I didn’t have to deal with these stupid interview segments. Hey, what if we didn’t have interview segments at all? But then, how would we fill the time? More sketches? A musical act each week? Some sort of audience segment?” Another couple of weeks. More desperation. On to phase three.
  3. “This is going nowhere. It would be so much easier if we didn’t have to fill the stupid time. Hey, what if we didn’t have to fill the stupid time? What if we just focused on sketch comedy and eliminated everything else? What if we became a half-hour sketch comedy show?” Bingo!

By becoming a half-hour sketch comedy show, we were able to accomplish two things immediately:

  1. We could focus exclusively on what we did best, and eliminate everything else.
  2. We could move to a much, much better time slot: Saturday nights at 11:30pm (as the NBC affiliate, we pushed Saturday Night Live back a half-hour, so we became their lead in; it was a great one-two punch of comedy on Saturday nights).

Sometimes the easiest and best way to solve, or “fix,” a problem is to simply eliminate it. Now, whenever I have a difficult problem to solve, I first ask myself if I can simply eliminate it instead. Sometimes the answer is no, and then I go to work on solutions. But you’d be surprised how often the answer is yes.

When the Beatles recorded the landmark song Strawberry Fields Forever, they ran into a problem. Towards the end of the song, during the fadeout, the rhythm section messed up, and the band lost the beat for a few measures. Both the Beatles and their producer, George Martin, spent precious time trying to solve the problem: “Should we re-record? Can we add something to mask the flub?” But then somebody had a brilliant idea: “Let’s just fade the song out before the mistake, and when the mistake is over, fade it back in again!”

What did the Beatles accomplish with this solution? First, they eliminated the problem. And second, in doing so, they created one of the most surprising, innovative, and memorable song endings in rock history—a false ending!

So the next time you have a difficult problem to solve, before going through the hours, days, or weeks (or even longer!) that it might take to “solve” the problem, ask yourself the question it took me weeks to discover: “What if we just eliminated the problem altogether?”


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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