The Problem With Finding Answers

Don’t Look for a Great Idea. Look for a Good Problem – Greg Satell

Yesterday I spent five and half hours in a room with my colleagues Carole and Simon trying to get to the root of a problem.

Three colleagues – over 16 hours of valuable time, just thinking.

It was worth every minute. We’d missed at least two crucial questions in our service design and were perilously close to jumping straight to answers.

If you jump straight to answers two things happen:

  • You spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • You can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

16 hours of thinking time – with no measurable outcome – is likely to be questioned as an indulgence.

At the same time many of us will spend a lot of this week in meetings, most of which will be about creating activity rather than deliberation.

John Wade is surely on to something when he talks about a different kind of meeting where people rarely speak…and if they do they never try to assert their ideas or opinions over others. Maybe we just need more listening?

More Agile, More Problems

One of the issues I have with agile working (which never feels very agile funnily enough) is the presumption that teams using agile methods get things done faster. And fast is always good.

Fetishising speed results in just hurrying up. And once going fast is on the table, things quickly start falling off.

In the social sector addressing wicked problems is never going to be fast. It’s not just about a launching a new app, or customer ‘portal’ (cough).

We need to question some fundamental assumptions about how our businesses interact with citizens. And that may require unearthing some entirely new problems.

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The Problem with Solutions

If we don’t nail the problem, and fully explore idea generation, we put all our efforts into actions.

This looks good in a project plan because it appears to reduce uncertainty.

Right now people are getting a little nervy as Insight and Innovation at Bromford are expanding the range of options to consider. Our list of questions, our multiple lines of enquiry – grow daily.

But if, as Tim Kastelle says, you’re disciplined enough to be able to live with that ambiguity for a while, you usually end up with a better answer to your problem.

Show Me The Data!

Here’s the thing: most of what we know is bullshit.

We presume that the way our organisations’ operate is because of some profound truth or deeply understood purpose – when often we have just built upon past behaviours and (sometimes false) assumptions.

Amazon talk of a truth-seeking culture. Of a belief that there’s an answer to every question and the job is to get the best answer possible. No PowerPoint is allowed at meetings. Six page word documents are read in silence at the start and never distributed in advance. This is to encourage focus, attention and establishing the facts.

In our session yesterday we stopped many times and asked:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Building a culture around evidence and enquiry might not sound as sexy as innovation and ideation – but in truth they go hand in hand.

Ask a better question, get a better answer.


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