One of the biggest impediments to change is the way we habitually think about things. Our brains are lazy, we categorize things – this is like X and not like Y – and then we over-rely on our categories. We are subject to all kinds of unconscious biases. Once we know something works we tend to stick with it. Something with a long track record of working well is the scientific and engineering mindset. This is where we frame a problem statement and then work towards generating a solution. It’s extremely difficult to imagine life these days without the amazing scientific, technological, and engineering accomplishments that have transformed human life since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
Our ability to frame a problem and apply science and technology to finding a solution has led to incredible wealth production and raised the standards of living for billions of people. This category of thinking has been so successful that we’ve institutionalized it in our schools and applied it to virtually every aspect of modern life. However, we are now bumping up against the limits of this hugely successful approach. When you hear people say “we need to think out of the box” the box they are referring to is quite often one labeled “problem/solution.” This is particularly true when it comes to what termed “wicked problems” or “wicked messes.” These are situations where there’s high systems complexity coupled with high social complexity. “Wicked” means that these situations are highly resistant to interventions. They are also referred to as complex adaptive challenges. In a world of complex adaptive challenges, problem/solution thinking is the siren’s call that lures many brilliant people to run aground on the rocky shores of wicked messes.
Author and organizational development pioneer Peter Block wrote a book entitled, The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters, in which he counsels us to shift our focus from finding the right answer to finding the right question. In my own work, I find that the question of “How do we do…?” has high utility, but if it is introduced into the process too soon, it tends to shut down possibilities. Before asking how to, it helps to invite people to exercise their imagination rather than their problem-solving skills.
“What would ‘X’ look like it if it were working for everyone?”
Rather than framing complex issues as problems to be solved, try framing them as an invitation to think differently. My favorite way to do this is to ask people, “What would ‘X’ look like it if it were working for everyone?” By everyone, I mean everyone. Employees, bosses, leaders, customers, vendors, the community in which we are doing business, the families of the people who work here, as well as the other life that we share the planet with whose existence is impacted by our actions. Asking about such larger populations gives us a sorely needed perspective on both personal and planetary health over time.
Eco-architects William McDonough and Michael Braungart recognized that the day will not soon arrive when we will be able to abandon many of the industrial processes that are harmful to our health without potentially catastrophic consequences. However, these fellows shifted the question from, how do we solve the problem of industrialization, to what would it look like if industrial processes were working for everyone, including those who are negatively impacted by them? Then they came up with the idea of dual metabolisms with a closed-loop industrial metabolism nested inside a larger biological metabolism where harmful waste from the former is not allowed to bleed off into the latter where it can do irreparable harm. That change in question transformed an intractable problem into something much more workable where imagination recast the challenge in larger terms and led to how questions that were targeted to concerns where science, technology, and engineering can make useful contributions.
“What is we shifted the question from, how do we solve the problem of industrialization, to what would it look like if industrial processes were working for everyone, including those who are negatively impacted by them?”
Asking what things will look like when they work for everyone opens up a space for a deeper level of conversation. It invites people to release the tension caused by needing to come up with the right answer and shift into a genuine inquiry where the process of exploring the question creates its own value that will have a payoff down the line. Give people time to explore the question of how it looks when it works for all concerned. Give them good facilitation and visual tools. Revisit it often, and when it feels like you have generated a bunch of good ideas and a vision of possibility is coalescing, then it’s time to ask the question of how it might be done. You’ll be surprised by what comes out of this simple shift in questioning.