To Solve a Hard Problem, Change These Two Mindsets

By Mark Rosenbaum and Nat Greene

Originally Published in New Theory

When we’re brought into an organization to help it solve a hard problem, we’re often introduced to the situation like this: “Oh, the solution to this one is easy: we just need to build a whole new second well — or plant — or warehouse.” Then comes the next part of that statement: “And good luck getting capital approval for that.” The translation, to us, is that the people we’re talking to already know this problem can’t be solved, and so we’re either going to have to live with it, or throw a lot of money at it.

But this approach stands directly between a problem and a solution. And these attitudes reflect a very interesting part of human nature: At times, it’s actually more comfortable to accept a problem as unsolvable rather than to dive into the unknown, embrace one’s ignorance, and believe that the solution to your hard problem can be simple. This need for comfort holds many businesses back.

But to begin working on solving some of the most valuable problems in your business, your team has to first stop thinking that way. It boils down to changing these two critical mindsets:

If the problem is painful, the solution must be complex.

Think about it: Do you think your boss wants to hear that after a long process of grappling with a costly problem, you realized that someone simply installed the wrong part — and just by installing the right one, the problem is solved? If you’ve been dealing with a painful and expensive problem for years, there’s something about a simple solution we don’t want to accept — even though a simple solution is best for the business. Many people are actually afraid a solution may be simple, instead of hoping that it is.

We’re experts and we already know everything there is to know about the business.

Businesses frequently don’t challenge what they “know” to be true. It’s tough to consider that the facts you believe are wrong, and humans are notoriously bad at challenging them. But working only with what we already know confines a problem into a rigid framework with no room for critical investigation. You’ll never ask the right questions about a problem if you believe you already know all there is to know.

Both of these mindsets have one single result: constraint. They constrain us into accepting a problem as unsolvable, and prevent us from diving into the unknown, embracing our ignorance, and believing that there may well be a simple solution. They also prompt people to give up before ever trying to solve the problem.

Instead, it’s critical to change these mindsets and unleash the team on the problem. Great problem solvers believe in a simple solution, and trust they’ll find a satisfying “Eureka” moment at the end of their investigation. They also embrace their ignorance. They’re excited to challenge what they believe, investigate with fresh eyes, and aren’t afraid to ask questions. That’s the kind of mindset you need to cultivate in your team. Here’s how:

Reward simple solutions.

Don’t get frustrated if your team tells you the cause of your company’s expensive problem was simple. When they cite a basic calculation error, or a single misplaced or misaligned part, don’t ask, “How could this have happened?” Instead, celebrate their great problem solving. Acknowledge what your team did to find the solution, and thank them for their impact.

Trust, but verify.

When your team cites numbers or facts in its problem-solving efforts, challenge them with pointed, factual questions. For instance, ask how something was measured, or what the source for their information was. Make sure your team is depending on its investigational skills, rather than institutional memory, to determine what’s really going on.

These two simple strategies will go a long way in helping your team change its behaviors and abandon the “it’s impossible” and “we know it can’t work” mindsets. Suddenly, impossible problems not only seem possible to solve, they get solved. The value to your business — and to your employees as well — will be tremendous.

Case in Point

Here’s a compelling example of how shifting away from those two mindsets enabled an organization we worked with to finally solve a hard problem. In this case, it was an industrial facility. But the approach works in any realm:

We were called in to help a mining wastewater treatment facility tackle a problem: they couldn’t keep up with demand. Trucks that brought dirty water had to wait for hours to hook up and pump off their wet cargo, because the receiving tank was always full. Even though the plant had enough capacity to treat the dirty water, the pump that disposed of clean water was not keeping up. The plant was at risk of losing customers entirely as they eventually got fed up with waiting.

Since the pump was reported to operate at 97% efficiency, the plant believed the only option was to add a second clean water disposal well. In fact, in the daily notes, the answer was always the same:

But was this true? A second well would take tremendous resources to build and posed a whole series of new problems. It also meant that, until the facility had completed that second well, they would be stuck with the same problem and further irritate their customers.

When we arrived on site, we embraced our ignorance — and encouraged them to do so. We role-modeled this by challenging every number we came across. We asked first what 100% efficiency meant for this pump. We were told that 100% was based on the perceived maximum safe pumping rate.

But when we looked at the pump design, we found a higher pumping rate written right on the plan. It turned out that an engineering safety margin had been applied — not once, but twice — in a game of operational telephone. This meant we could simply turn up the pump motor speed, and safely get 25% more output.

We were also told that a certain pump speed meant a certain water flow into the well. Again, we embraced our ignorance, and chose to measure the actual water flow, which was much lower than expected. At this point, the entire plant team was excited at the prospect of there being a possible solution. They worked with us to measure the speed of the pump’s flywheel, and we discovered that the flywheel was spinning slower than expected based on the motor’s speed. Checking the design documents again, we found that the installed flywheel was too small. When the right flywheel was installed, the flywheel’s speed increased another 9%, along with water flow.

These simple solutions fixed a very painful and seemingly impossible problem. By asking seemingly stupid questions, we helped the team see that they didn’t know everything about their facility — and that because there was more to learn, a simple solution was possible.

The facility was then able to quickly increase its pump throughput by more than 36%, and now easily met demand. Best yet, its customers were happy. So much for that second well.


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