The Value of Finding the Right Problem to Solve

Finding the right problem to solve

Chipmunk’s Plan For Future Better Crafted Than That Of 8 Out Of 10 Americans, said a headline in The Onion a couple of years ago:

“Indeed, this chipmunk was able to accurately anticipate its wants and needs as far as weeks, months, or even a year ahead of time, whereas 80 percent of our human subjects were entirely incapable of looking beyond their next meal or that night’s television programming.”


The report confirmed, however, that the small subset of Americans who do exercise the same level of forethought and determination as the 2-year-old chipmunk are affluent, healthy, and largely content.

Attacking human vice or folly through irony and wit is a good way to help us pay attention and potentially take corrective action — we listen to people who say and do interesting things. These tactics work because there is truth to them. On average, in planning for our future we're not better than a young chipmunk.

Research by social psychologist Hal Herschfield says we're not only bad at delaying gratifications today to build our future; there's tension between our present and future (unknown) selves. We have such a hard time imagining our future selves that saving or undergoing any kind of rigor — like a new physical regiment or diet — today for a better self tomorrow is very difficult to do.

It's not a question of balancing short- vs. long-term rewards, but of seeing how we will be in the future, with associated needs and desires. It's a new problem, which once identified required a different solution. In this case, researchers used computer imaging to age people… and help them imagine what it would feel like to be us in the future. 

We learn to think about our future self as a person we're close to, someone with whom we have a sense of connection and want to help. The new problem generates a new insight.

When we find a new way of solving a problem, we make a conceptual shift to clarity. In To Sell is Human Dan Pink says clarity is an important quality to help move others. He defines it as:

“The capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn't know they had.”

Solving problems is still an important ability, with the added twist that the value is in identifying the true problem, asking better questions. Studies conducted by social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi in the 1960s found that people who achieve breakthroughs in any field tend to be good at finding problems:

“It is in fact the discovery or creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in his field.”

It may seem like a semantic distinction, but identifying the right problem to solve is increasingly more important. For starters, how we think about the problem matters:

These people sort through vast amounts of information and inputs, often from multiple disciplines; experiment with a variety of different approaches; are willing to switch directions in the course of a project; and often take longer than their counterparts to complete their work.

An ability to suspend judgment, to slow down rather than rushing to conclusions are useful attributes when dealing with complexity — they're the hallmarks of an open mind. With clarity, it's important to find our frame of reference. The most important question we can ask, says Pink is — “compared to what?”

Five frames that can help us provide clarity:

1. The Less Frame — sometimes more is confusing. A study about choosing between products to learn a language shows that when a $575 online course is compared to $449 language software package, most people pick the package. But when we add to the package an inexpensive item, like a dictionary, most people pick the online course. In a world filled with options and alternatives, curation is important.

2. The Experience Frame — even as they're intangible, we value experiences more than things. That's because we adapt quickly to material possessions, while memories of a vacation or special trip keep getting better with time. This means emphasizing how a product makes life easier and better.

3. The Label Frame — how we think about something makes a difference in how we see it. To translate in practical terms, labeling influences behavior. For example, when we tell someone they are “neat,” they tend to become that way. Studies have shown that positive label creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

4. The Blemished Frame — a product that is not perfect may be more appealing, on two conditions: a./ we're in a low effort mode, busy or distracted; b./ the negative piece of information needs to follow the positive. For example, the sale items are available in few colors, and not our favorites. Or the item is discounted because it has a small  imperfection. We make a trade-off.

5. The Potential Frame — instead of selling achievement, we sell potential. There's more uncertainty in the second, which makes us think twice about it. In the process, we end up thinking better, and using reason to make the case.

Regardless of the frame we use, we should provide people a path to help them envision the steps to go from where they are to where they want to go. According to research, a clear way to get something done improves our odds 3:1.

Motivating resistant people is harder… which is why clarifying others' motives using irrational questions works. When we try something unfamiliar that takes us out of our habits, we see new things. For example, taking a new route to work, or even sitting at a different desk.

Curation is the ability to apply a special lens or filter to information, or products. We're exposed to curated experiences when we go to museums, for example. The curator injects clarity by creating context around a story. Curation was a big trend in the reporting of the winter Olympic games. It's helpful to set it apart from downright stealing.

We can see the principles of clarity at work in how to write a good invitation to connect, and six new pitches for selling your product, idea or services.