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The Problem with Problem Solving

We’re certainty in unprecedented times that call for both problem solving and creativity. There is an art to know when to problem solve vs when to create. I’m hosting a webinar on April 8th to explore this concept. Register here:

This blog post will give you a preview.

My husband Dan is the penultimate problem solver. A mechanical engineer by trade, he can fix just about anything. He reads the manuals. Studies the problem carefully. Troubleshoots thoroughly. Is persistent beyond belief.

I, on the other hand, am a creator. I see possibilities. I am infuriatingly curious. I ask interesting questions. I look at things in new ways. I propose more silly suggestions than practical ones, but out of the mass of ideas usually comes the one that is just what is needed.

Together we make a pretty good pair. As standalones – we don’t. I get frustrated and give up on problems that have a solution. He gets frustrated and begins to swear at problems that require creativity.

Our western society values, shapes, and rewards lots of people to think like Dan. Our organizations are filled with technicians, with folks who are really good at using the left side of their brain. As such, we have deep talent in planning, troubleshooting and problem solving.

There is far less emphasis on that other side of our brain – the creative, holistic, innovative, integrated side. And as such, we have less talent, focus, or training in how to create or innovate. We see art and science as two dramatically different things. We hero-worship creativity in the entertainment industry but squelch it in business and industry. We covet math and science teachers, and cut the arts.

Make no mistake, problem solving has a valuable place in the world. We fall in the trap, however, of not being aware of when problem solving won’t solve our problems. And even if we do recognize that we need something different, we are disinclined and ill-equipped to move to using that “other side” of our brain.

The Problem with Problem Solving

Problem solving works great if there is a solution. Is awesome for technical problems. Is wonderful if what you had before needs a tune-up and not an overhaul. However, it does not work at all for situations which have no immediate fix, for which there is not a known solution and that requires new fresh thinking.

The problem is that today, we are facing situations that have no known solutions. That are complex beyond belief. That beg for new approaches. Bob Johansen, from the Institute for the Future and collaborator with the Center for Creative Leadership, has a word for today’s world of disruptive change: VUCA. We live in a world filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This is exactly the type of environment that requires creating rather than problem solving.

Problem solving is looking back; creating is looking forward. Problem solving is fixing; creating is building. Problem solving tends to marginally improve the status quo, creating has the potential to create a dramatically new and better reality. Steve Jobs and the Apple products are great examples of not merely improving a known commodity – but of radically creating a new product and experience. Walt Disney did the same with family entertainment.

I’m not advocating that we abandon problem solving. But I am certain that we need to get better at learning how to create, and knowing when we need to use those skills – in lieu of problem solving.

Problem Solve When: Create / Innovate When:
• You have a technical issues with a known solution • You face complex, ambiguous and new situations
• It has worked in the past and that you want to continue to have work in the future • What has worked in the past clearly no longer fits the current situation and you want something different>/td>
• You are dealing with mechanical or process problems • You are dealing with groups of people or interdependent systems
• Your goal is to patch and repair • Your goal is to envision and build
• You want to manage what was working • You want to lead to a new and better place

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