Before you rush to a solution, make sure you have a problem.

Ever heard of the “peace dividend”? That was the problem we in the West were supposed to have after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Without an enemy, we were going to have all this extra money that used to be allocated to defence spending, but wasn’t going to be needed anymore.  What would we use it for? Social services? Health care?  Frighteningly soon, other conflicts and terrorism emerged to fill the vacuum,  which prompted an increase in spending on national security.  (For an interesting article on the disappearance of the peace dividend, check this out.)

We do have a tendency, us humans, to develop solutions that are looking for a problem (google that and dozens emerge). I experienced that this weekend at a very frustrating Board meeting. Our Chair approached us with the Carver model of board management. A terrific model. But, we didn’t know how to evaluate it for our purposes, because he wasn’t clear on the problem(s) he wanted to address. A difficult conversation ensued as we wrestled with identifying the problem, and he wrestled with hurt feelings over our potential rejection of his solution. In the end, we reached a stalemate which was unsatisfactory for all.  I learned later that there was a subtext to the entire discussion that had not been shared, frustrating our ability to identify the problem, let alone to problem solve.

It is absolutely vital when approaching what seems to be a problem that you resist leaping to a solution.

When you think you might have a problem on your hands — personal, organizational or societal — sit with it. Force yourself to stay in the problem space. Bring in other perspectives, reach out and collaborate with unlikely people, be very clear about all the variables and subtexts. Ask questions endlessly — force yourself to get at the crux of the matter.

In going through this process, structure your problem identification sessions. People are more creative when we are given a framework within which to work. A framework, which might seem to contain us, gives us more psychological license to reach for the edges. Good frameworks start from good questions, and address issues such as budget (your solution has to stay within a certain budget to be feasible), timelines, human resources available, and inter-dependencies you cannot control. For more on this approach to innovation, see Claude LeGrand and David Weiss, Innovative Intelligence, (2011).

Problem identification is the key to successful innovation. Only when you fully understand the complexity of a problem can you hope to approach it with an array of  constructive and elegant solutions.

Next time you want to ‘think out of the box’ or be innovative, force yourself to explore all dimensions of what you think might be the problem. Call on your colleagues to brainstorm within your framework. Reach out beyond your usual circle. From the inevitable frustration will emerge a well-identified problem with a great solution just around the corner. More on that next week…….