Problems and solutions

A long time ago, my mother-in-law Sue told me that some problems just don’t have solutions. I knew she was wrong. I knew that every problem has a solution — that having solutions are what problems are for. Of course, I was wrong, and she was right.

Some problems have solutions that you can see, but can’t get to. Some solutions are even worse than the problems they’d solve. And some problems are just plain tricky: the swords of mighty kings forged into gordian knots. Other problems are solved merely by waiting for a person to die or for an empire to crumble. And whenever you solve the worst problem you’re facing, the second-worst problem immediately steps up to take its place.

Storytime with Jerry Weinberg

A friend recently tweeted this quote from Jerry Weinberg’s “Secrets of Consulting” (a phenomenal book with a lousy title):

That quote reminded me of my own summary of “Secrets of Consulting”, which, true to his homilist technique, I call the “don’t be a jackass” rule:

The “don’t be a jackass” rule

Problems are everywhere. Acknowledge that you, under your own strength, are not going to solve every problem you see, or every problem you know how to solve — and if you try to, you’re just being a jackass.

(What’s this all about? Well, go read Weinberg’s book, or soak in Todd Clarke’s visual book notes for the same. I recommend both.)

Finding 15% solutions

What I’ll often do, instead, is turn to one of my favorite liberating structures, a little bauble called 15% solutions.

For me, the search for 15% solutions begins with the recognition that the biggest, thorniest problems we face are just another part of our environment. Our problems are located in the same big soup as our colleagues and peers; as people we like and people we don’t; as our organizations, affiliations, and communities; as our responsibilities, creditors, paradoxes, and best-laid plans. Furthermore, most things in this jumble are as hard to change as the built environment, even if they aren’t physical stuff that’s too big to move or profoundly meaningless boxes and arrows on a flowchart or orgchart.

But there’s always a little wiggle room. Small things you can change without getting permission, or by begging forgiveness. Things left uninstrumented or directly within your grasp. That’s the 15%.

A 15% solution is what you arrive at when you stop worrying about the intractable systems of the world as they whirl without cease under encroaching darkness, and instead identify the tiny, immediate, and maybe effective things you can do right now.

If you do this by yourself, that’s great.

If you do it with a few other people who are stuck in the same problem, that’s even better. (In fact, the amplifying effect this can yield is the point of the liberating structure.)

In other words

  1. Don’t leap at problems, or you’ll just find more problems.
  2. Don’t leap at solutions, or you’ll be a jackass.
  3. Remember to try the easiest things first.
  4. It can be pretty hard to find the easiest things.

“Problems and solutions” was originally published in the Different Chairs journal.