1 Big Idea to Think About

  • When you suspend your instinct to immediately judge a problem and instead look, listen, and explore, you become a problem finder instead of just a problem solver. 

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Practice the 5-second rule. Pause between the tendency to judge whether you agree or disagree and take a moment to understand the problem. 

1 Question to Ask

  • What is another way to look at this problem, and what other solutions might exist?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • An example of addressing the wrong problem (2:43)
  • Studying solving wrong problem through the perspective of creativity (4:26)
  • Are humans reactive creatures, or are we designed to explore? (9:47)
  • The problem with IQ (11:38)
  • A study on problem finding and Art students (15:25)
  • What the study discovered (19:00)
  • What steps you can take to become a better problem-finder (20:37)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome everyone. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I’m here with you on this journey to learn to understand so that we can make a higher contribution without burning ourselves out. 

Have you ever been so busy addressing peripheral issues but have that sinking feeling that the real core of the issue is not being addressed? This is part one of a four-part solo series on that subject, and the interviews will also be providing more insight on the same subject. By the end of today’s episode, you will understand the seminal research that is the first empirical research that was produced on the distinctive difference between problem-finding and problem-solving, and you’ll begin your journey of improving skill in this essential area. Let’s get to it

Remember that the fastest way to learn anything is to take action on what you are learning. So within five minutes of the end of this episode, do something that you can complete in one minute to take yourself on a journey of learning. Call someone to talk about it, text somebody to say you’d like to have a conversation, share this podcast episode with someone else so that you can make the ideas live and therefore improve the life of business and the business of life. 

Recently I was speaking at an event, and afterward, somebody came up to ask a question. They were curious about how to pursue a life as a writer. Before jumping into an answer, I wanted to understand more about why they were thinking about it, when they had begun thinking about it, how deep the feeling went, and what kind of writing. I didn’t want to jump in with my own autobiography of how I had approached it and why I was doing it. I wanted to make sure I understood her questions and what was driving it before jumping in with what could end up being either irrelevant or even harmful advice and suggestions. 

Right as I was beginning that inquiry, somebody else joined our conversation, unaware of the context. She immediately went to work asking questions of the person who had been asking questions to me. I wasn’t offended by the interruption, but I was curious. I stepped back, looking at the interaction as an observer, as a researcher, and I watched as this well-intended newcomer jumped to conclusions about what was going on and began to drill down with a series of precise questions, none of which had anything to do with writing. 

This went on for just five or ten minutes before, quite naturally, we were interrupted again. We did get the chance to continue that conversation later, and I was able to listen and understand with, I think, profit with what was really behind her questions. But that little interaction is a microcosm to me of a macro problem, something I have seen happen interpersonally and, without exaggeration, a thousand times. 

How often people prematurely judge a situation and jump in with solutions well intended in other ways, well informed, competent, capable people, and I am curious and not a little to understand this phenomenon and from many different angles because it seems to me that nothing is so irrelevant as addressing the wrong issue and that as it turns out is the best case scenario. 

When we address the wrong issue, we can do enormous damage. There are lots of ways of studying the problem of addressing the wrong problem, and today I want to do it from the perspective of creativity, specifically in an article called From Problem-Solving to Problem Finding by JW Getzels and M Csikszentmihalyi. I’m going to read a little from that article, which we’ll put in the show notes and make some commentary as we go.

“How did we come to study the creativity of problems when we began by studying the creativity of solutions?” they ask. 

“How did we reach the conclusion that the creative act involves problem-finding as much as it does problem-solving? If the two processes can be separated at all and to hold the hypothesis that creative problems may be as fruitful as the subject of study as creative solutions? We did not come to these considerations, which were vastly surprising to us by following the prevailing fashion. In research of the suggestions contained in the prevailing literature, quite the contrary, the emphasis in the literature and in research pointed the other way. There was an abundance of conceptual and empirical work on problem-solving.” 

“Literally,” they write, “a dozen theoretical books and hundreds of experimental articles.” I’ll add, parenthetically,  that it’s far more than a dozen theoretical books and hundreds of experimental articles now for their writing here in 1975 about what led them to create the seminal empirical work on this question. So prior to them, there was a lot of theoretical work, and the difference is that somebody is just trying to guess what the relationship is between factors. They were the first to be able to try and run an actual experiment on it. 

They continue, “There was virtually no systematic work on problem finding the posing and formulating of problems, nor did we get to these considerations through any common sense notions of the relative importance of skill in problem finding and problem-solving. Indeed at first, the very notion of problem finding as a human skill. Sounds absurd.” 

By the way, I relate to that. Some people don’t find that terminology, problem finding, particularly helpful. 

They continue, “Does not human skill lie in avoiding problems rather than in finding problems or if the problems are unavoidable in solving them? In fact, need one to find problems? Is not the world already teaming with dilemmas and problems wherever one turns at home and in business and economics and in technology, in the arts and in the sciences? The world is, of course, teeming with dilemmas, but problematic situations do not present themselves automatically as problems capable of solution, to say nothing of creative solutions. They must be formulated in creative ways if they are to be moved to creative solutions.”

I’m adding now that I literally think there are people unaware of the need for that part of the process. They turn to Einstein for an insight about that first part of the process. It’s a little wordy but stay with me. “The formulation of a problem,” wrote Einstein, “is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill to raise new questions, new possibilities to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

And Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi suggest that this skill set goes beyond advances in science. They posit that it is key for breakthroughs in art, society, education, and or other aspects of behavior, no less than in science. So they began their journey by wanting to study creative output, and they assumed that what they needed to focus on was problem-solving to get there. How do people come up with creative solutions to problems? 

But the deeper they looked at that question, the more they realized that there was a road less traveled by, and that was the subject of how to frame and understand the problem itself. Now I’m jumping way ahead here. They explained that it was the changing conceptions of human beings and human intellect that drew out for them the need to shift back to problem-finding rather than just to the solutions. So let’s go first to the changing conceptions of the human being. It’s deep, but go with me. 

They write in 1975 that “a half-century ago, the prevalent model of the human being was a cognitively empty organism, responding more or less randomly to stimulation and connecting specific responses to specific stimuli through the effect of pleasure or pain.” 

So the model was that people would do nothing to learn or think if we were not forced into such activity by drives like hunger and thirst or externally applied motives like reward and punishment.

Stephen Covey once said to me that this was what he considered the jackass theory of human motivation, but here they say there was an evolution of thinking, that this surface way of understanding human behavior did not deal with all of the complexity that we were discovering within the human being so that you and I are far from being an empty organism psychologically, but rather that we are a cauldron of needs, values, conflicts, cognitive styles, repressions, and other conscious subconscious and unconscious forces which determine our thought and behavior. 

In that first model, we are just reactive creatures. In the second, there is so much to be explored. They tried to explain it this way that a conspicuous portion of human behavior is devoted to what can be classified only as art, science, play, or just curiosity, that we as humans are not only a stimulus-reducing or problem-solving organism but also a stimulus-seeking or problem-finding organism.

Meanwhile, over the same period, there was a shift in the way people thought about intelligence. If I can summarize it this way, the IQ test worked so well that it became utilized everywhere, certainly in schools and at quite a young age, certainly in the corporation and in government, and education was increasingly shaped around that measurement of intelligence. 

They write, “There is no question that the IQ metric is one of the most productive inventions to come from psychological science.” 

Yet there was so much not measured in the IQ test, and, I think, so much damage done unintentionally by how it monopolized the thinking about human potential. Gerard, back in 1774, long before any of this conversation was taking place, noted that a person may possess reason to perfection and yet be totally destitute of invention, originality, and genius. 

The traditional measures of IQ have effectively done a poor job in explaining creative output, what was originally called divergent thinking. That is to look at the problem itself with new eyes. 

And let me be tangible for a moment here because it seems to me that so much of traditional school is spent measuring and developing only this narrow form of traditional IQ. Guilford wrote about this. He said, “In tests of convergent thinking, there is almost always one conclusion or answer that is regarded as unique, and thinking is to be channeled or controlled in the direction of that answer divergent thinking. On the other hand, there is much searching about or going off in various directions. Divergent thinking is characterized as being less goal bound. There is freedom to go off in different directions. Rejecting the old solution and striking out in some new direction is necessary, and the resourceful organism will more probably succeed.” 

In traditional school, so very much of the learning is responding to what these researchers call presented problem situations. That is, here is a problem with a known solution, and the people presenting the problem know that solution and your job as a student is to find the answer they already know. You’re testing memorization and understanding of a concept that was entirely defined by somebody else. It’s not like it’s valueless, but at the other end of this continuum, you have discovered problem situations where the problem does not yet have a known formulation. There’s no routine method of solution; there’s no recognized solution. So here, the person must identify the problem itself, and there are no established steps for satisfying the requirements of the situation, and I’ll put to you which seems more like real life? One in which all the problems are defined clearly before you with a single right answer, and your job is to find it, or is life with its inherent and massive ambiguity, much more about our ability to name, frame, reframe the problem itself and then come to new and hopefully simpler solutions to it.

These scientists come to a conclusion that the questions they themselves were answering were not the ones they should have been asking, and so they shifted their question to how are discovered problems found? What is the process for being able to uncover and then frame and name the right problem or at least a better problem? 

Here’s what they did. They identified 31 art students from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, and those students were tasked with creating still-life drawings. So the students come into the class, and they see a whole series of objects from which they can choose, and they’re to choose an object and to draw it, and then, their art is to be put before a series of independent judges who know nothing about the different ways in which those art students approach the problem. 

They enter the art studio. It’s equipped with two tables, several chairs, Bristol boards, drawing paper, a variety of dry media of the sort customarily used by the art students. A constant arrangement of 27 objects of the sort students used to construct still-life problems was placed on one of the tables, and the second table was left empty. Each of the 31 fine arts students came to the studio alone and was instructed to choose some of the objects from the table, arranged them as desired on the second table, and draw them. 

They wanted to find out if problem-finders produce better art and then to discover whether problem-finding art students become better, more creative artists In the years that follow. Some of the students approached the task directly, selecting one or two objects, typically the same ones, and promptly commenced their work. They quickly sketched an outline and then directed most of their efforts toward meticulously filling in the details. 

The other artists exhibited a more exploratory approach. They interacted with a greater number of objects deliberating over their choices before deciding which ones to incorporate into their drawings. Their interactions with the objects was more extensive involving actions such as sniffing, tossing them into the air, examining them in different lighting conditions near a window. 

Furthermore, these participants tended to choose more unconventional objects compared to their counterparts. When they commenced drawing, they allowed the artwork to develop organically during the process rather than immediately settling on a preconceived idea. The disparity between the two groups yielded striking results. Judges who were not privy to the participant’s creative processes consistently identified the students who engaged in problem-finding as producing drawings of greater artistic merit. Moreover, they extended this into a longitudinal study which found that the participants with this problem-focused approach led to greater success in their careers as artists. 

Those who exhibited less emphasis on problem-finding either discontinued their artistic approach or struggled to sustain themselves, while those who displayed a more problem-oriented mindset generally fared well, with one participant within just a few years already having achieved the recognition of a painting into a highly respected permanent art museum and this advantage went on throughout their careers.

What does it mean? Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi found over the course of their research over many years three distinct elements of problem finding, sensitization, restructuring, and evaluation. Sensitization refers to developing an awareness of problems or areas that merit attention and investigation. It involves being open to new experiences, actively seeking information, and questioning existing assumptions or norms. 

I love this, sensitization. It comes long before any answer or anything that looks remotely like a solution. 

Two, they suggested restructuring. Restructuring involves reframing problems by shifting perspectives or altering the way they’re conceptualized. This step encourages looking beyond the obvious and considering multiple dimensions or interpretations of a situation. It’s another invitation to pause but not passively to actively understand to look at it from another perspective before jumping in. 

Then third, evaluation. Evaluation involves assessing the importance, relevance, and feasibility of potential problem definitions. It requires considering factors such as resources, constraints, potential impact, and personal interests or values. That is a prioritization of the problems. All of this before the skill we’ve all been taught how to do, which is how to actually come up with a solution. 

Problem-finding, in the way that we’ve been discussing it today, is obviously a part of problem-solving. You can’t really separate them. To entirely separate them, I think, is unhelpful, and nevertheless, they are distinct related processes. 

I invite you today to begin with sensitization. It’s all to do with what Dewey called suspending judgment, just looking, seeing, listening, eyes open wide, exploring before you come to an opinion about what you agree with or disagree with. 

I’ve come to think about this as the five-second rule, to pause between that tendency, we have to judge whether we are agreeing or disagreeing to understand, and that’s something that you can begin right now.

As I’ve been sharing this seminal research with you, what is one thing that you can do immediately in under a minute as a result of this conversation to be able to continue the conversation so it becomes active and beneficial in your life? And who is someone you can share it with? 

If you have found value in today’s episode, I invite you to go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo where you can add a review on Apple Podcasts about this episode. The first five people to do it will get access at essentialism.com to the Essentialism Academy. That’s currently $300 in value for a one-year access to the academy, and you get it for the price of writing the review to help other people discover why this has been helpful. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next time.