We consultants are wired to be problem-solvers. See something not working right? Let’s find a way to fix it. See a workplace in conflict? Let’s find a way to resolve it. See the organizational duct tape starting to show? Build a structure to hold it together better.
It’s not just consultants, though: the strongest, most sustainable businesses (and nonprofits, let’s not forget them) see a problem, one real people experience, and provide a solution for their problem. Sometimes, that’s a technical problem (my home won’t heat); other times, it’s a “what if” that someone figures out (what if I could search for information on a handheld device that also makes phone calls?).
The problem-solution orientation drives so much of business that we consider it essential for building new businesses, new product lines, and new service offerings. Problem-Solution Fit comes as phase one of three as leaders develop new value propositions.
Nevertheless, problem-solution thinking does not address some of the most fundamental business questions we face. Business questions where defining the problem itself is the problem are called adaptive challenges, that require adaptive change. How do we work in problem-solution thinking if problem definition is itself the problem?
Moreover, problem-solution thinking tends to discount or dismiss the humanity (and sometimes even the personhood) of those involved in the situation. When we discover that the problem we are facing is a “people problem”, we often try to “fix” the people. This is especially true of the so-called “soft skills” problems: team alignment, listening, leadership, timeliness, engagement, and so on.
When we see people problems as the problem, and we apply problem-solution thinking there, we tend to view people as machines that need someone to tinker with them or repair some flaw, rather than as human beings who have real – and valid – motivations for doing what they do, and mindsets in which they operate. In short, we discount those things that make us human, and then wonder why our solutions don’t work.
By contrast, when we intentionally view people as creative, resourceful, and whole, we tend to approach others differently.
Creative: Seeing people as creative means we intentionally view them as capable of original thought, able to imagine alternatives to the present situation, and offer perspective to others that is uniquely theirs.
Resourceful: Seeing people as resourceful means we deliberately view them as having resources they can bring to bear – experiences, material goods, intellect, emotion, personhood, and so on – on whatever situation they are in. They are not poor, vacuous, needy, or completely incapacitated. Resourceful means they can apply their creativity to their present situation to find novel, timely ways to solve problems.
Whole: Seeing people as whole means we purposefully view them as fully complete human beings, not somehow broken or damaged in need of our repair expertise. Because of this, we and they are human equals, both seeking together resolutions to the problems we face. Persons themselves are not the problem: behaviors and mindsets, perhaps, but the person? No. If the person is the problem it is easy to dehumanize, demonize, and “other” them – making them the scapegoat and the person blamed for everything, or the hero who will save us. This enables others to shirk responsibility and avoid change. When we view people as whole, we assume that everyone has at least some capacity to maintain boundaries and take responsibility – even if this is much less than is currently needed. But it gives us something to work with.
What we find is that when we view people as creative, resourceful, and whole, we tend to become better problem-solvers. We listen better. We get better buy-in from those we work with. We displace our ego and let someone else be the hero. We realize that it doesn’t have to be us that figures it out. As long as someone does, then we’re in good shape.
We apply our expertise, but we don’t have to be the expert.
We can understand what is going on, but we don’t have to know it all.
We can do what we do with excellence, but we don’t get trapped by perfection.
We can fail, because failure is an opportunity to learn.
We can lead with confident humility because we know clearly who we are.
Is this the kind of problem-solver you want to be?
People are creative, resourceful, and whole. And when we enter a challenge with that perspective, we have the best chance of resolving the challenges we all face, together, with solutions that grow out of the best in all of us.