In the work of sustainable change, I have developed a growing understanding of the distinction between problem finders and problem solvers. In a community context, a problem solver may say that we don’t have enough funding to do what our programs need in order to accomplish their goals, whereas, a problem finder may see that the issue isn’t doing more of what we are already doing and failing but the need to work in completely different ways.
Here is the central core lesson of what it means to be creative in our communities – to truly work differently: a whole line of research has found that people, most disposed to creative breakthroughs in art, science or any endeavor, tend to be problem finders. (See: "To Sell is Human"). Problem finders sort through vast amounts of information and inputs, often from multiple disciplines or sectors. (See: Habit # 4). They experiment with a variety of different approaches. They are willing to switch directions in the course of a project and they often take longer than their problem solver counterparts. But in the end, the progress is faster AND a transformative outcome is achieved.
Think of the George Bernard Shaw quote (famously attributed to Robert Kennedy): to see those things as they are and ask why (problem solver), or see things that never were and ask why not (problem finder). In the nature of "working differently" to achieve collective impact, we rely on the creative, heuristic, problem finding skills of artists more than on the reductive, fragmented activity bias of problem solving technicians. In community engagement, this means going beyond the usual suspects.
I agree with what you are probably thinking: the terminology is awkward ... I think this framing is trying to play off the historical valuing of a "problem solver" and in fact saying that most of those who in the past were lauded as problem solvers were in fact simply "band-aid appliers." To systemically and forever solve a problem you have to be sure that, in fact, you are addressing the right problem. Are you seeing the right problem? Thus, the "new" value of problem finder.
At its core, any organization, be it business, nonprofit, governmental agency, school district or cross-organizational cooperative is simply the application and management of resources to solve problems in the creation and delivery of value for their respective stakeholders. We are conditioned – cognitively and managerially – to solve problems. Most managers would prefer binary decision-making versus ambiguity and uncertainty. Keep it simple. Don’t question authority. Solve the problem – there’s got to be an answer! – and move on.
Creativity and innovation are different. “A question well put is half resolved,” contends Paul Souriau,
a French philosopher known for his works on invention theory and aesthetics, “True invention thus consists in posing questions. There is something mechanical, as it were, in the art of finding solutions. The truly original mind is that which finds problems.”
Thus, a successful community process requires an engagement across sectors and the time and inclination to ask questions of the "givens." Much less focus should be on the oft-unquestioned time spent building trust and much more on building clarity around what are actually the drivers of the present, suboptimal methods of working and how can we change the frame to achieve something lasting.
This insight -- if it rises to that -- of seeking out the "problem finders" among us has powerful antecedents in the understanding of what it takes to accomplish transformative change:
Voltaire, for example, called us to "judge a man by his questions rather than his answers."
Einstein and Infeld: The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution … To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old questions from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.
Evans and Deehan: Creative people do not only solve problems. They also find problems to be solved.
Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi: The central question: "How are new problems discovered?" rather than the more usual question, "How are existing problems solved?" The first step in creative activity involves the discovery, or formulation, or the problem itself.
But, if we are conditioned to mechanically solve problems (think: IQ testing), how do we seek problems? A.F. Osborn contends creativity is activated when we bombard the imagination with queries, stabs such as, “what if…” “what about…” “what else…” And, I would add, “Yes, and …” or review our earlier posting on "The Why Test."
Imagineer a problem, frame a riddle, or construct a puzzle. Then, solve it.
Thinking about editing a movie scene that isn't working, a problem solver might edit longer or shorter or cut the scene out all together. A problem finder might instead realize that the scene isn't working because the narrative flow is off and this problem finder then might say the the scene would work much better if it came earlier in the film.
Those organizations or communities that achieve formidable results find the tough questions, and then, instead of being afraid to ask them, eagerly decide to seek out the answers. They dig in deep to the details that matter and ignore the ones that merely distract. The art is in knowing which is which.
A first step in eliminating the details that merely distract, may be to use recent meeting agendas as filters -- if we have struggled achieving our aspirations, those agenda items are probably not central to the real problem.
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