What are you solving for?

Micène Fontaine, September 1, 2020

September. For many of us, it's the unofficial start of the new year. Back to school or back to work or both. Businesses and individuals alike only have a few months left to achieve what we set out to do when 2020 came around. With COVID-19 complicating everything, making sure that we solve for the right problem is more critical than ever. 

What are you solving for? I must admit that I have not always been in love with that question. I felt it stifled my natural inclination to wander down every dark alley, rabbit hole, and tangent imaginable before I even knew what I was - really - trying to solve. 

Here is a blatant example of solving for the wrong problem. A few days ago, NPR reported (read or listen to the report) that the plastic/oil industry has known since 1973 that recycling plastics would likely never make economic or environmental sense. I avoided reading the article for a few days as I knew it would challenge my current thinking. I eventually read it and discovered that in the 1990s, when consumers started to voice concerns at the environmental impact of using plastics everywhere for just about everything, the industry chose to spend millions of dollars on public relations and advertising campaigns. Fast forward 30 years, and we are back at square one. The industry is offering the same solution. Rather than try to rethink their business model and develop a material that won't harm our environment and our health, the industry is once again promising that 100% of plastics produced will be recycled - this time - by 2040. It won't. 

Here is how this might play out:

  • Those who don't think we have an environmental crisis on our hands will see that as a sign that they were right. 
  • Some - that was me - might think that it cannot possibly be correct. Surely, recycling plastic works. The recycle logo can be found on all-things plastic.
  • Others might reach out to tell me about all the great things plastics have made possible, especially in healthcare (and they are right, and I am grateful for those). 

All would miss the point.

Granted, it's hard work. For one thing, most of us have been conditioned to come up with answers. It started in school and continued at work. Our brains are designed to come up with solutions. And, of course, there are the answers we wouldn't dare question. The ones that are so tied to our identity,  beliefs, and how we make sense of the world that just poking at those pre-processed answers might cause our world to come crashing down. The good thing is that this is all shifting, albeit slowly. Organizational leaders and parents alike are discovering the power of asking better questions to solve for the right problem. 

Asking better questions is what drove us to launch our Change by Design series. Need a step-by-step framework to help you solve for the right problem? Check out the Harvard Business Review « Are You Solving the Right Problem? »

There are no right answers to wrong questions.
- Ursula K. Le Guin

:Food for Thought and Action