You know the feeling. That sneaking suspicion. The breadcrumb-of-a-hunch teetering on the cliff of your subconscious. “I’m missing something. I’m missing something.” It’s a cognitive itch. A hiccup. A perpetual nag.

Chapter 1: The Nag of “The Missing Something”

No matter who you are — a designer, CMO, business analyst — problem solving is an integral part of your day. You do it without realizing it.

Have you ever stopped to think through HOW you think through problems? I’m getting a little “meta” here, but stick with me.

Here’s how I arrived at my question:

I became intensely frustrated one day…with myself. I felt trapped in a cycle. I was coming up with the same old answers to the same old problems, and I was bored out of my skull. Boredom is in the DNA of disenchantment, unhappiness and apathy — the killers of innovative thinking. So I took a moment to reflect on how I solve problems and find answers to tough questions.

That’s when it hit me like bad Mexican food on the drive home. I WAS missing something. Many somethings. And it was my own damn fault.

Chapter 2: Realizations of an Exonerated Realist

No matter how unsexy the label, I’m self-aware enough to accept that I’m a staunch realist. I figured out this mindset was fueling a very bad habit: Vetting my ideas against parameters before giving those ideas a chance to grow into something meaningful enough to evaluate.

These parameters — or limitations, constraints — ranged from external factors, like a client’s budget or project timeline, to deeply internalized anxieties, like fear of being cliché or laughed at. Fear.

Vetting ideas against parameters can be a good thing; in fact, it’s necessary to ensure we’re moving forward with solutions based in reality. But here’s the kicker: We need to vet those ideas at the right time. Otherwise, we’re not giving them a chance to land and take root, which is really important when we’re solving complex problems with so many possible “right” answers. Because you don’t just want a right answer. You want the best answer.

The types of challenges our clients at Centerline face span from:

“How do we integrate customer feedback to create an agile marketing program?

“What’s the best way to design a seamless experience across these
disparate platforms?”

“How do we transform this marketing organization into a nucleus of
thought leaders?”

There are a thousand right answers to those questions. Where there’s no formula to follow and many paths to “right,” it’s important we don’t let parameters narrow our thinking from the start. We have to remain open to crazy new possibilities, and then use parameters to scale the solution to reality.

That’s how I came up with five lies and two truths that I’ve started to follow.

Chapter 3: Liar Liar

I’ve learned to lie…to my realist self. When I’m faced with a challenge, the first thing I do is convince myself to believe lies that are in no way based in reality.

The 5 Lies

  1. I have no budget to work within.
  2. I have no deadline.
  3. There are no organizational barriers to consider.
  4. I have no technology restraints.
  5. I have no personal success metrics.

This forces me to put aside any baggage…

…to make room for two central truths:

  1. Never waste time looking inward at my own vulnerabilities.
  2. Always look outward to whom I’m serving: the end user, the humans who will be experiencing whatever it is I’m creating.

Why all this ethereal nonsense?

Believing these lies and internalizing these truths will keep you from falling into the trap of designing solutions that are retrofitted to parameters your customers don’t care about. Customers don’t care about your short build timeline. They most certainly don’t care about your politics.

In order to build the appropriate lens through which to solve a problem, you must remove the limitations that narrow your perspective of the challenge.

Otherwise you will most certainly miss something, a possible answer. Perhaps THE answer. If you let things like budget and organizational politics shape the lens through which you solve the problem, you not only fail to see the realm of possible answers, you are in danger of changing the shape of the problem itself.

Changing the shape of the problem is much more dangerous than choosing the wrong answer. Wrong answers will always teach us something.

This is all much easier said than done. We are humans. Flawed humans easily persuaded by competing motivations, intrinsic biases and unsubstantiated logic. Try using the 5 Lies and 2 Truths to give yourself a break, get out of your own way and focus on the customer.

The rest is just baggage.

Additional Reading: Navigating How Humans Think {Slideshare}

Caitlin Vlastakis Smith

Written by

Listener, storyteller, advocate for human-centered design and sense-making. Imperfect writer, maker, and mother.

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