If someone comes to you with a problem, you start thinking of a solution. That’s natural — everyone does it.
But as soon as you start thinking of a solution, you unconsciously begin shutting off possibilities for getting a deeper understanding of the problem and therefore of finding a truly breakthrough solution.
That’s why it can often be more productive to avoid “solutions” thinking when a problem arises. It’s better to stay in what we call the “problem space” for as long as possible. If that sounds strange, here’s an example of what we mean.
A military organization came to us for help because people who were being observed by pilotless drones were using techniques such as smoke screens to deceive the analyzers of the drones’ video and other data. The organization asked for assistance understanding the adversary’s deception techniques. But by framing the request that way, the client had already moved from the problem space toward the solution space — the client was specifying the type of solution that was expected.
We encouraged the client to stay in the problem space, sometimes known as the “front end,” in order to get a deeper understanding of the problem. The client soon came to see that analysts are deceived because there are limits on their ability to perceive. The real issue is understanding these limits.
To further explore that issue, we held an off-site at which we brought in people (outside the military) who are experts at confusing people, and others who are experts at making sense of ambiguous information. The first group included an illusionist and a theatrical set designer. The second included a forensics expert and a blind person who was practiced at perceiving whether her guide dog was leading her into safe or unsafe places.
The insights from this “divergent collaboration” of people from disparate walks of life gave the client ideas for new avenues of research. For example, could the analysts’ information feeds include other types of data, such as auditory signals, or even smells?
What does all this mean about your own efforts to solve problems and execute on innovation?
First, force yourself to stay in the problem space as long as possible. Obviously, companies sometimes face real restrictions on the types of solutions they can consider. But often those limits are purely psychological, the result of narrow thinking about the nature of the problem.
So go deep. Look for underlying issues. What’s the real obstacle you face? Once you’ve found it, go deeper still. What’s the essence of that obstacle?
Then search for different viewpoints on the obstacle. Go far afield. Look for people who have faced that same essential challenge, and tap their insights. This can be easier than you think. It can be as simple as reading a relevant book or magazine that you’ve never looked at before. Or call an unfamiliar organization that includes people who face your challenge on a regular basis. Don’t be afraid to bring outsiders into the discussion. We’ve found that people from wide-ranging backgrounds are often very willing to help — they find the experience fascinating.
Be thoughtful about the physical environment in which you explore the problem space. A lot of companies do offsites in hotel conference rooms, but those can be mind-numbing. Find something a little more conducive to exchanging ideas, a comfortable setting where you can get away from your day-to-day activities, form and re-form small groups, write on the walls. And plan the sessions carefully. When it comes to mixing and matching ideas, don’t trust to luck. Structure conversations so that they’re enriching rather than draining.
None of this is easy. Staying in the problem space, in particular, can be very difficult. Sometimes clients feel frustrated that we resist moving from the problem space to the solution space. Even some of the “divergent” collaborators we bring in for additional insights feel frustrated when they hear we’re less interested in their proposed solutions to a client’s problem than in how they look at the issues involved.
But staying in the problem space is worth the effort. If you rush to a solution, you run the risk of solving the wrong problem. The place to get the problem right is in the problem space, where you’re more open to new ideas.
Originally published here