Is that what you really want? Solving the right problems

conscious businessThis post originally appeared here – as a guest post on my friend Pat Sweet’s blog Engineering and Leadership.  

Just about any engineer you ask will tell you that our profession is all the problem solving. I’ve been taking various entrepreneurship courses and have learned that business is actually all about solving problems too.  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; what you want is 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.

Then try doing a bit of reflection.  Drill one level down.  Your goal is the glass of water – the thing you’re asking for.  What’s the orange – the thing that would serve you just as well?  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?

I would love to hear your results from taking this approach.

Look for the orange!



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Engineer Profile #2: The Point of Quantum Mechanics with Lindsay Watt

Engineer Profile #2:  The Point of Quantum Mechanics with Lindsay Watt

Hello engineers!  I am really excited to bring you the second in the Engineer Profile series with tech-business-finance-traveling man Lindsay Watt.  He is a true thinker and a doer, and a natural story-teller. I think you’ll really enjoy this interview.

Click here to listen now!  (And by the way here is Engineer Profile #1 if you missed it)

If you’re a student now, or if you are an engineering educator, I am sure you will find Lindsay’s take on engineering education really encouraging and interesting.  He also references Lebron James, Thomas Edison and Mark Vandreesen (though not all at the same time!), defines his most important ABC (great advice), and reveals his top three criteria for picking that perfect first job:


1) Make sure it has something that you’re passionate about in it.

2) Look for a position where you can learn as much as possible, and they will just keep throwing things at you!
3) Is in a place where things really get done, so you can put thing out there in the world and see how it feels.

You might be surprised by what he said is not so important in that first job.  And I was certainly surprised when he explained the relevance of the Quantum Mechanics course he took in school.  He tells us his perspective on the five-year plan, and why he choosing to study engineering was such a great choice for him.    He also dishes on why his first start-up failed, and the benefits he experienced of getting an MBA.

Please leave a comment below and let me know – was Lindsay’s advice what you expected?  What provoked most insight for you?  Any temptation to research a new interest or aha’s about your next steps after listening to this?  (A degree in Engineering Physics , perhaps?) :)    Enjoy!

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Engineer Profile #1: The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander

Engineer Profile #1:  The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander

Hello engineers!  I am really excited to present the first in a series of interviews with engineers who have already done some life design, made some progress in their career and have a story to share.  The subject of the first Engineer Profile is Chris Iskander, mechanical engineer from Toronto Canada.

If you were hoping to collect more data on what fellow engineers are doing, look no further!

The Engines of Democracy with Chris Iskander
(interview run time 20 min – you can right-click to download,  left-click to play in a new window.)

The subject of today’s profile is the multi-talented Chris Iskander, who graduated from the University of Toronto with a Mechanical Engineering degree.  Today he works for Dominion Voting Systems, a company that provides products and services to support elections.

So Chris is responsible for the engines of democracy.  (I like to say so anyway!) Hence the title of this post.  Very timely topic considering tomorrow’s big election in the US, no?

He came on as employee #15 over eight years ago, when the company was just two years old.  He shares the reason that his company survived as a startup, and what he feels their biggest competitive advantage is and what makes him most proud to work there.

It’s really a fantastic interview.  He surprised me with a reference to something we all learned way back in high school.

He took the words right out of my mouth when it comes to true fulfilment in your life and career.

You might be surprised to hear his reasons for ignoring his father’s wishes, or to learn why he had to go to the Phillipines eight times in 2010!

Chris also very generously offered his own approach to making good career decisions.

He offered some tremendous advice to the engineer who is starting out:

“If you’re not happy, don’t internalize it. Don’t make it personal. Don’t let yourself believe it’s something negative about you.”

I’ll be interviewing more inspiring engineers in the weeks and months to come.   We hope you will find these interviews informative, thought-provoking and enjoyable, starting today with adrenaline-loving, often-traveling, highly-risk-tolerant Chris Iskander!

Would love to hear what you think of Chris’ advice or anything else we spoke about in the interview.  Drop me a comment or a tweet.

Engineering involves using both sides of your brain!



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