This originally appeared as a guest blog on my friend Pat Sweet’s engineering and leadership blog. http://www.engineeringandleadership.com/is-that-what-you-really-want-solving-the-right-problems/
Just about any engineer you ask will tell you that our profession is all the problem solving. I’ve been taking an entrepreneurship course and have learned that business is actually all about solving problems. Interesting huh?
I can’t help but think of a book that I read a few years ago called Conscious Business: Building Value through Values by Fred Kofman in which he told a very simple parable to illustrate a powerful shifting idea around problem-solving. I’ll paraphrase:
Ask me for a glass of water it would seem that your problem is that you do not have a glass of water. If I did not happen to have water with me and I will have to tell you: No, I cannot help you. I cannot solve your problem.
But is lack of a glass of water really the problem? Do you *want* a glass of water? No. You want to drink the water, but that’s not your problem. The problem is that you’re thirsty; you want to not be thirsty.
So in this example, let’s say I don’t have water, but I happen to have an orange or some juice or some sparkling water. I can solve your problem, and I can help you, if I recognize that what you really want is not to be thirsty.
The point is that we don’t generally ask for what we want. We ask for what we think will get us what we want.
In my first engineering job I was working for an automotive manufacturer. We were solving the problem that people did not have cars. That’s right: solving it by making more new cars.
Or were we? The problem really was that people needed to get around. They were asking for cars because they thought that would get them what they wanted. What if we had offered horses? Or scooter? Or maybe electric cars? Or (way more fun) jetpacks or teleporters? In today’s business environment, where things are changing so fast, many large companies are retooling their business models to survive. That is, they are solving the same problem with a completely different solution. Orange instead of glass of water.
Nimble business models win the day
Entrepreneurs can have an advantage here because they are likely much more nimble than large corporations. So it’s still about problem-solving but requires a constant ability to re-evaluate and move along with customers – or to pivot as it is known in Lean Start-up circles.
So I have come to a conclusion that neither engineering nor entrepreneurship today is not just about problem solving. It has to be about problem identification as well. Especially with the complexity of the biggest problems we are solving today, we need to bring in the skills to zoom in and zoom out on a problem and think about solving it from many angles and at many levels. Unlike on the exams we took in school it’s not the best course of action to just in and solve for x!
Making it personal
Applying this principle to your personal career and leadership journey, what do you really want? Do you want want to run a marathon? Buy a new car? Score a big promotion, a fat raise? Take 6 months off? These are all great and worthy goals. Put a timeline on them and they will downright SMART!
But anytime I hear people talking about an outcome that they want to achieve I think about that glass of water and orange example. What is it that you really want? How sure are you that you can get it by achieving that specific milestone? How else could you address that same area? It may involve taking a smaller bite, shifting your way of thinking about what your need/problem actually is. Try it sometime with your own goals. (If you don’t have goals yet, check out Pat’s excellent post on goal-setting here).
Then try doing a bit of reflection. Generate some alternatives. Zoom out and think sideways a little. You may end up changing your goal all together – that is, finding a better solution that solves the problem in a more efficient way. And isn’t efficiency the definition of good engineering?
Look for the orange!