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  • Writer's pictureJason Griffing

Find Better Problems

"The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution." —Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld

Impactful Ideas - At a Glance:

  • Research on the creative process has shown that people who spend more time exploring different problems to solve generate better results than those who jump straight into solution mode.

  • Jumping straight into problem-solving mode is fine when both the problem and solution are well understood, but that is rarely the case in knowledge work.

  • Spending extra time "surveying the geography" before we set out on our creative problem-solving journey is key to generating better results.

  • There are simple practices we can employ to improve our problem-finding abilities.


In 1962, a team of researchers at the University of Chicago led by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a study aimed at answering the question: How do creative works come into being? As part of the study, they designed a studio to examine the artistic process. The studio contained two different tables. One table was covered with 27 assorted objects such as a bunch of grapes, a brass horn, a glass prism, or an antique book. Aspiring artists were instructed to choose some objects from this table, place them on the other table, and then draw them. The artists were told to spend as much time as they wanted on this task.

The researchers observed two very different approaches used by the artists in their experiment. One group of artists spent only a few minutes selecting the objects for their drawings. They quickly sketched an overall composition and then spent the rest of their time completing it. In short, they had quickly selected a visual "problem" and then invested their energy in solving it.

By contrast, the second type of artist took a very different approach. On the surface, it appeared they were having trouble making up their minds. They would spend five or ten minutes examining various objects from different angles. They'd select a few objects and begin sketching them only to change their minds and select different ones. They'd sketch an initial composition for twenty or thirty minutes, get a new idea, and then take their drawing in a totally different direction. After up to an hour of this process, they would finally settle on an idea and complete their sketch in five to ten minutes. In other words, these artists had used a problem-finding style, spending the bulk of their time exploring different problems to solve before diving into solution mode.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his team enlisted the help of five professors from the Art Institute of Chicago to help him determine which works were the most creative. Using a method known as the Consensual Assessment Technique, the group created an art show with all of the works displayed anonymously. The professors were asked to rate the creativity of each sketch. These scores were then averaged to arrive at a total creativity score for each work. Csikszentmihalyi and his team found that the latter group—those artists who had spent the majority of their time finding a problem—generated far higher creativity scores.

Five years after they graduated, Csikszentmihalyi tracked down the subjects. He wanted to find out who amongst them had established themselves as successful and respected artists. About half of the subjects had given up art altogether. The successful artists, it turned out, were the ones who had used the problem-finding style.

Problem finding vs Problem Solving

"The trouble with people is that they're busy fixing things they don't even understand." —Anthony De Mello, Awareness

When we're faced with a problem, the temptation is to jump straight into problem-solving mode. This works fine for well-defined problems. A customer experiences an issue; you apologize and give them a refund. Your kids are hangry; you give them a snack. Your computer starts to bog down; you reboot it. This is all well enough when the problem and solution are both well understood. As creative knowledge workers, however, the situations we face are rarely so simple.

More often, we are faced with ambiguity—situations where the problem itself isn't fully understood, to say nothing of the solution. Users are struggling to find traction with your new product. Employees aren't adopting your new backend software. Your customer satisfaction scores are steadily dropping.

Such problems can confound us. The rote application of past experience won't do the trick. Our understanding of the underlying drivers of the problem is fuzzy at best. Our goal-state might take on many different forms. And there are countless different paths we must choose from in order to arrive at success.

When faced with such a challenge, our inclination is to plow forward with the first solution that comes to mind. But creativity researchers suggest that we'd be better off focusing our initial efforts on problem finding before we jump into solution mode. This involves making sure we have an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the problem and of the various general approaches we might take to solve it.

Think of creative problem solving like a trek through uncharted mountain wilderness. Jumping at the first solution is like plotting a direct path to your destination. It might appear sensical on a map; the shortest path between two points is, after all, a straight line. Maybe you’ll get lucky and stumble upon a pass. It’s far more likely that your journey will become a slog. You’ll find yourself facing an impassable river or hemmed in by cliffs on three sides. You set off prematurely. Studying topographical maps or conducting scouting missions might feel slower at first, but learning the geography is how we pick the problems we want to solve. It can mean the difference between trying to cross a treacherous canyon and a pleasant stroll through a shady meadow.

How to find better problems

Adapting the problem-finding approach can be a challenge, but there are some simple practices we can employ that encourage the habit.

  • Use writing to gather a variety of ideas: When most of us want to gather ideas from a group, we schedule a meeting to brainstorm. But there's plenty of evidence to suggest that brainstorming doesn't work. One of the biggest challenges with brainstorming is due to the fact that humans are hardwired to conform to the will of the group. In brainstorming sessions, this usually results in the group converging on a small number of ideas, usually those suggested early in the sessions and/or those suggested by the most powerful people in the room. The next time you need to gather ideas from a group, try using writing instead. Send out a list of questions to the group and ask everyone to provide their answers. This approach avoids groupthink, generates more ideas, and challenges people to think more critically about the precise problem you're trying to solve.

  • Change the questions you're asking: In his excellent book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, author and creativity expert Roger von Oech encourages us to be more creative by changing the questions we ask. For example, consider phrasing questions in the plural form. So "how would you solve this problem?" becomes "what are a couple of ways you might solve this problem?" This forces people to seek what von Oech calls "the second right answer." In the words of the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, Linus Pauling "The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas."

  • Try to prove yourself wrong: Our natural instincts are to try and prove ourselves right; another simple way to ensure you're finding the best problems to work on is to flip this tendency on its head. Put simply: Try and prove yourself wrong. Gather feedback from different perspectives on early drafts of your ideas. Ask your teammates to help identify the holes in your thinking. Use questions like "Where am I off base here?" or "Is this crazy?" Poke holes in your plan. Think critically about the scenarios under which your idea won't work. Use what you find to generate alternative plans of attack.

The ability to solve problems is a critical skill for any knowledge worker. But if your goal is to rise above the pack, problem-solving alone isn't enough; you have to be good at finding problems in the first place. The most important challenges facing any business are almost always multi-causal; there are a variety of underlying factors and an even wider variety of ways to tackle them.

What challenges are you facing today? A creative block on your latest blog post? An unreasonable request from an important customer? Difficulty recruiting talent? Fight your instincts to charge headlong like an angry bull at the first solution you spot. Stay patient; take the time needed to make sure you understand the various issues at play. Like a big cat stalking its prey, survey the situation from a variety of angles, probe for weakness, find your angle, and only then initiate your attack.

Spending some extra time in problem-finding mode can yield big returns. We avoid dead ends. We find leverage. We spot approaches others have overlooked. So before you dive into solution mode on your next difficult challenge, ask yourself first: What's the real problem here?

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