The problem of problem-solving methods
Weekly insights 6: It is the method at fault, not the problem.
Humans are natural problem-solvers. But without a strong intuition that prompts you to recognize something as problematic, intelligence, hard work, or creativity are less likely to lead to a good result. The very concept of a problem is problematic because it hints at the possibility of discovering a solution. Sometimes, the desire to find a solution can be bigger than the possibility and the capacity to solve the problem. This imbalance can lead you astray, and as you look for a way out, you find out you are on the same journey as everyone else who tried but never succeeded in "solving" the problem.
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory, developed by Arno Minkkinen, a Finnish-American photographer, is an interesting metaphor to visualize this imbalance that affects problem-solving.
The peculiar thing about the Helsinki bus station is that all buses leaving the station take the same route initially and make identical stops. During bad traffic, you may get tempted to hop off the bus, grab a cab and head straight back to the station, looking for a faster way out. But here is the thing; after a kilometer or so, the bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. All you had to do was stay on the bus regardless of where you were heading. The same principle applies to problem-solving.
Hyper-focus on problem-solving strategies is in high demand as the nature of problems is now different and more complex than ever before. Amid constant change and rapid disruption, teams double-charge their problem-solving capacity to recognize emerging patterns and thrive in such volatile uncertainty. So, it makes sense to deploy collective intelligence to find creative solutions. But as the nature of problems changes, so should the approach and the methods you use.
#1. Different approaches to traditional problem-solving
"A problem is a barrier. We thrive as thinkers, as doers, as people when we take barriers down." David Niven, It's Not About the Shark
Most current problems, wicked ones included, are not yet beyond solving, but how we attempt to solve them needs to become more fitting to their demands. It might help if you didn't leave the bus too soon and stayed with the problem a little longer, overriding the urge to follow the usual drill.
Traditional problem-solving is linear, probabilistic, and constrained by conventional norms and thinking based on logic. It is helpful in some instances when the variables are few to get results fast. But in a challenging context, it is better to overcome the urge to look for a fast solution and use generative and emergent approaches. If you ignore the unknown, you fall into the intelligence trap and fail to make progress.
"If you never change your mind ... why have one?" Edward de Bono
Lateral thinking, for example, explores indirect and creative ways to identify different ideas that are not immediately obvious by changing concepts, patterns, and perceptions. When choosing a new direction, you enter into the realm of what can be and is not yet defined. The goal is to look for new connections and breakthroughs through a series of divergent and convergent phases.
Creative problem solving brings forward the emotional and irrational aspects that logical thinking often ignores, stretching beyond the self-imposed limitations. In the long run, your logic will benefit from the stretch as it will pursue sensemaking rather than self-enforced validity.
#2. Setting flexible boundaries to problems
"The problem is the problem."
Problems are the good practice of focusing efforts and improving efficiency. But they can limit options. Beware that setting firm boundaries will narrow your thinking and what you consider possible. How you talk about problems and challenges ultimately frames what you imagine your options for action are and, ultimately, the outcome.
If you deliberately allow the problem to be within flexible boundaries, you can explore the solution space more freely. You can reframe possible tensions or conflicting priorities caused by an "either/or" condition demanding a single solution. By working on the premise of "and/with" thinking, you will understand the cycle better and how to manage the energy flow more effectively. The most important skill you get to practice by making this shift is the ability to tell problems apart.
There are, let's say, objective problems that most people agree on (climate crisis, mathematical problems, destructive behaviors, etc.) and subjective ones that often carry a lot of psychological weight (moral dilemmas, FOMO, emotional friction, etc.). Regardless of the type, their impact is real, and how you define these boundaries will determine the distribution of efforts, energy, and the quality of the outcomes.
#3. Facing unsolvable problems
We naturally strive to solve any problem we face - simple, complicated, complex, or wicked. But what drives us to engage in such activities? Typically, the premise is that a solution to a current pain will improve the present state and produce positive results. Such a view is a strong motivation and justifies even the highest investment of time and money.
However, hyper-focus on problem-solving can be a double-edged sword when you aim to find a solution to every problem - be it real or fictional. When you can't let go of that temptation, you may create problems to satisfy your ambition, distracting you from what is important or where you can make the highest impact.
"Your intelligence is not only defined by your ability to solve problems but more and more by the kind of problems that attract you." Africacyberpunk
There is a special lesson coming out of not solving certain problems. It makes people face their limits and accept that sometimes not doing anything about it is better than solving it in "any" way, no matter how worse of a way that may be.
Some problems are unsolvable and must remain, well, problems for a few reasons:
Irreversibility: the problem is past its due date, and any change from this point on needs to count the losses and promise to at least not do more damage than it's already caused. Pollution and wars are two likely candidates.
Indifference: the problem is underestimated and ignored by a few generations until it reaches a tipping point eventually that only attempts to deal with symptoms, not the cause (revolutions bear a powerful component of such indifference to the underlying problem).
Undefined: the problem has such ambiguous components that it cannot be framed with the current vocabulary or experiences, marking the limits of human capacity. From finding a case for time or space travel to discovering the purpose of human life - it's always a shaky ground that only imagination can hold everything together.
Once you build a different attitude toward dealing with unsolvable problems, you can begin to acknowledge that you control far less than you think you do. This honesty is important when dealing with problems that have solutions beyond the known landscape.
Knowing when a problem is worth solving and applying the right approach will save precious resources and help you develop a healthy relationship with the problem space.
In short, it's worth becoming a problem lover, not a problem-solver addict!
In our work at Owtcome, we often apply unconventional thinking for provocation, movement, and empathy. We like to experiment with different approaches to seek multiple possibilities. Methods like reframing, scenarios, and perspective shifts to explore the problem from multiple angles, enrich our understanding, and, ultimately, dissolve the original question. Reframing puts the problem in a new context, whereas scenarios and perspective shifts add multiple viewpoints for more depth and nuanced understanding and lead to new pattern formation.