Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Compulsive Problem-Solving

I've been reading the news about the economic crisis and, like most of you, getting more concerned as time goes on. We keep solving a problem only to find that it is just a part of a more serious problem we didn't realize we had.

The same scenario is played out on a smaller scale in boardrooms, team meetings, offices, and even kitchens many times every day. We seem to be driven to identify and solve problems, to the point where we move from one problem to the next with no space or time in between. And we call this productivity. This habit leaves little time for perspective, with the result that the roots of our problems are rarely identified or addressed.

The best problem-solving methodologies recognize this lack by starting with activities designed to discover the right problem. So if you're not starting there, you're in for trouble right off the bat. But I think you can do better than that. I think that there's something about a problem-solving mindset itself that limits your perspective. When you go from problem to problem all the time, even if they are different problems, your mind's eye begins to lose the ability to see at a distance. Once that happens, you won't want to get far enough away to really see the forest, and if you do, you won't see it clearly.

To remedy that situation, I think we have to incorporate letting go of the problem into our way of approaching challenges. Because when you've given something a good try, it is important to then let go of the trying. You need that to appreciate the effort and outcomes in all their depth and with all their ramifications. It's a process that may take some time, and it's not just a rest or an award ceremony. It is an act of integration that is just as important as the act of conscious problem-solving. Needless to say, this is not a common business practice, but I think it should be. 

If you want to get a feeling for how powerful this idea is, I'd like you to try something for the next week. Every time you or your group solves a significant problem, I'd like you to then reserve about ten minutes for yourself in a place where you can have absolutely quiet solitude. No phone calls, email alerts, or other interruptions. For those ten minutes, I want you to just sit. Close your eyes, relax your body, and in a calm way try to keep your attention on your breathing in and out. When you find yourself thinking about something else, as you will, simply observe that fact, let the something else go, and get back to your breathing. 

This practice is like watching boats passing on a river. The aim is not to have no boats, but to let them float freely downstream without interference. You'll find this to be an activity of profound relief. It frees the plumbing of your thought processes in the deepest way possible. After about ten minutes, open your eyes, take a few relaxed deep breaths, and come back to the world you're living in.

By doing this practice, you'll be reminding your mind's eye that it can see without depending on the restrictions of logic and rationality. After a week of this, I'll bet you'll develop a new and deeper ability to know what's really important. With that perspective you'll be a better problem-solver when time comes, and you'll spend more of your time solving the right problems. The improvement is something you will notice, and I'd welcome hearing about it.