The Problem with Problem Solving

The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question. –Peter Drucker

Tim Hurson tells a story in his book Think Better that got my attention. He shares that NASA invested millions of dollars developing a zero gravity pen because the pens we had did not work in space. The Soviets, of course, had the same problem. Except their solution was far simpler and much cheaper – use a pencil.

How could such smart people miss something so obvious?

The simple answer is that they asked a different question, hence they solved a different problem. NASA asked “how can we get a pen to write in space?”. The Soviet’s asked “how can we write in space?”. Both questions and the problems they were trying to solve were valid. And both could declare success. After all, they solved their problem.

Yet it is the thinking behind the questions we ask and the problems we choose to solve that I believe merits a closer look.

Consider that this is a clear demonstration of what happens when we focus on solving a problem without first getting clear about what we want and need to accomplish.

NASA asked a questions that led to solving the problem of the pen not writing in space. The Soviets asked a question that essentially focused them on the desired outcome based on the need at hand – to be able to write in space.

Unfortunately at the time it seems like we know exactly what we are trying to accomplish. In fact, it is often so clear in our own minds that we don’t even stop to consider that perhaps we are not asking the question that will put us on the most productive path to accomplish what we need to accomplish in the first place.

Consider that our propensity to focus on problems rather than desired outcomes is a potentially very costly blind spot.

In coaching thousands of people in producing breakthrough results, this is one of the most common blind spots I have encountered. Attempts to intervene are more often than not met with resistance because it feels like it is unnecessarily slowing people down. It seems inefficient. Unfortunately we all too often choose what seems to be efficient in the moment at the expense of our ultimate productivity.

The costs of solving the wrong problem can be enormous as demonstrated in this example. It is neither efficient nor productive.

Why do we fall into this trap?

Tim points out that “Your mind consistently chooses to follow well worn patterns, rather than generate new thoughts, new interpretations or new ways of doing things.” In this example he points out that NASA was grounded in looking for solutions based in high technology so that is the pattern of thinking they automatically defaulted to. This is certainly part of the thinking behind the question they asked.

I also think there is another well worn pattern of thinking at play here: focusing on problems rather outcomes.

We have been trained and rewarded for being great problem solvers. It is a highly useful skill and can be incredibly satisfying. We love to solve problems. We also like to get into action as quickly as possible so we are inherently motivated to identify the problem quickly so we can get right to work.

For the most part we have not been trained in the discipline of outcome based thinking.

For many people, taking the time to step back from a problem and think about what we really want to accomplish can occur as a waste of time, especially when the problem, and even the solution, seem so obvious.

Problem solving usually feels like the right thing to do in the moment which is why there is little motivation to challenge our thinking. Yet without the discipline of what Tim Hurson calls productive or Tenkaizen thinking we limit what is possible. What else might NASA have invented with those same resources if they just used a pencil?

In Think Better, Tim Hurson makes the case for the value of investing in the discipline of productive thinking. He also offers a very effective and accessible model for how to engage in productive thinking. I highly recommend the book.

What I offer here is one simple thing you can do to intervene in the drift of what I call our addiction to problem solving:

Next time you find yourself solving a problem, stop and ask yourself (and your team) these questions:

1. What are we ultimately trying to accomplish in solving this problem?
2. How will we know we have accomplished it?
3. Will solving this problem accomplish that objective or are there other things we need to consider or problems we also need to solve?

You will likely still end up solving a problem, although it may not be the one you originally thought you had. However, you will also increase your chances of asking and answering more productive questions.

What techniques do you use for making sure you are asking and answering the best possible questions?


Enter A Comment

Ernie   |   13 May 2009   |   Reply

Hi Susan
Great update. Now more than ever we are trying to do more with less people and so I find people willing to accept the fastest solution and not necessarily the best. The pressures cause the breakdown in discipline; in this case problem solving, but I have seen the same in project management discipline. As leaders we need to continue to train, reinforce, and most importantly support the importance of this discipline.

Lolly   |   13 May 2009   |   Reply


I find people want solutions, and they want it now- today- yesterday. Taking the time to problem solve takes discipline and practice and patience.

Tim Hurson (Think Better) so beautifully states in his book, “We are creating a future, were we want to see more clearly, think more creatively, and plan more effectively. It is about thinking better, working better, and doing better. So let us free ourselves of the unproductive thinking patterns that hold us back.”

Thank you for this wonderful post and summoning it up for us. As always I look forward to see what you are reading and what you are pondering.


Dawn@Moms Inspire Learning   |   13 May 2009   |   Reply

Great post! I feel strongly that before you can even consider any of the answers, you must first spend time asking the right questions. We are all so busy these days that we often miss the “big picture” because we’re so caught up in the details.

Brainstorming questions and answers can be done by children and adults. The more critical thinking parents and teachers do along with children, the better off the world will be.

I’d like to share a great quote:

“We must be able to disagree and to consider new ideas and not be afraid.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Being open to new ideas – and questions- is the first step in changing the world.

Joe Williams   |   16 May 2009   |   Reply

Nice post Susan!

Now, to defend my pen-developing colleagues, they were focused on larger problems beyond writing in space. To set the stage for my point, consider this: Inputs (actions) lead to Outputs (results) which in the larger context of alignment and greater sense of purpose lead to Outcomes. Much as focusing on the problem, many focus on the inputs and lose sight of the goal. Did we do that with the pen? Perhaps in the limited context of writing in space. In a larger context, the Fisher Space pen is capable of writing upside down here on earth and in hot and cold environments, none of which were possible with other pens.

Susan Mazza   |   19 May 2009   |   Reply

@Chuck Have you seed the “Twas the night before implementation” poem? You clearly see it and take responsibility for this kind of breakdown. I am interested in hearing more about what you have learned about how to develop this discipline.

@Ernie Absolutely – the pressure makes this harder to do yet perhaps even more important than ever.

@Dawn Thanks for the great quote.

@Lolly – Thanks for adding that quote from Tim’s book. I find myself quoting him a lot lately!

@Joe Points well taken. Was it the “wrong” goal? I am in no position to judge because I wasn’t there! It is easy to make judgments from “the stands” about what happened in any situation. Whether they solved the “right” or the “wrong” problem in this example though, it certainly gives us an opportunity to learn and become more mindful. Besides, sometimes the pursuit of what may seem like the “wrong” goal can produce something amazing and useful in ways we never planned. From what I understand there are a whole lot of things created for the space program that have contributed to our lives here on earth!

acrylic painting tips   |   16 October 2011   |   Reply

Cool blog! Is your theme custom made or did you download it from somewhere? A theme like yours with a few simple tweeks would really make my blog shine. Please let me know where you got your theme. Thanks a lot

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