Most of our days in life and at work are spent obsessing over solutions.
How will I make enough money? Where will I go to graduate school? Am I doing what I am supposed to be doing? Can I find the time to do what I need to do? How will we market this product? What is our strategy?
The problem? These are all solutions.
Money is a solution. Time is a solution. Goals are solutions. Strategies are solutions. What ends up happening is that we spend all of our time looking for solutions without ever knowing the real problem we set out to solve in the first place.
The problem you set out to solve is your purpose.
What’s your problem?
By problem, I don’t mean navigating small, everyday challenges. A real problem is worth solving. It is your reason for existence on this planet, the meaningful need you are trying to fill, and the wrong you are trying to right in this world.
University of California-Berkley professors Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called these problems wicked problems.
A wicked problem is social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.
All meaningful problems worth solving are wicked, and if you or your organization exist on the planet (which I am assuming you do), you are or should be trying to solve a wicked problem.
And every person and organization needs a compelling problem to solve or there is no real point in existing. Our problem is what separates us from everyone else.
No one cares about your solutions
Recently, I was co-facilitating a session with non-profit executive directors. These people are at the head of amazing organizations serving compelling human needs from ending rape to advocating for abused children. But when we asked them what their biggest challenges were, most of them didn’t talk about the “wicked” problems they were trying to solve.
They all started talking about not having enough money. The problem? It’s only a solution, and no one really emotionally invests in your solutions.
Donors don’t give to non-profits because non-profits don’t have the money. Donors give because they care about the problem non-profits are trying to solve. A compelling problem taps into people’s emotions while money taps into people’s rationality.
Want people to follow you? To join your cause? To invest in you? To accept you into their college? Give them a wicked problem to help you solve.
Finding your problem
You may be reading these words and thinking, “I don’t have a compelling problem to solve” or “I don’t work in human services.” Stop. Yes you do.
There is something in this world that bothers you, that you think can be better, and that you can help solve. Your organization and company has a human being at the end of your supply chain whether you sell advertising or are trying to end homelessness. There is a reason your team was created in the first place.
Here are some ways to help you reflect on and identify your problem:
1. What bothers you? Try keeping a journal for a week and in the journal write down what bothers you about your community. When you drive around town or read the news, what really grabs hold of your emotions? What do you keep talking to your friends about? What is the issue you can’t stop thinking about? The answers are most likely your problem.
2. Reflect on your personal experiences. What challenging experiences have you had in your life that, in looking back, you could help make better for someone else? The true mark of a leader isn’t being able to look forward. It’s the ability to look back and to help make something easier for others coming after you.
3. For organizations, focus on your problem. Try having a retreat or a meeting in which you only talk about the human problem you are trying to solve. Try answering the question with your team, “What meaningful need in the world are we trying to fill?” This exercise alone may increase the commitment of your team. Research has found that when people are connected to the greater good, they are happier and perform better.
No matter who you are or where you work, you have a problem to solve.
Finding it and focusing on it can be powerful.