The differing attraction of hard problems and new solutions

At coffee with a male friend, I was talking about a female colleague that he really wants to work with. He was reviewing his pitch with me and he kept emphasizing his ability to bring her hard problems to solve. “That’s great,” I replied, “but she’s really more interested in doing original research on new solutions than on solving hard problems.”

He looked at me like I was nuts, which is honestly not an uncommon reaction when I say things. But to me, there is a very real difference between our attraction to problems and our attraction to solutions.

For example, I’m a hard problems person. While I’m interested in the new research that emerges in behavioral psychology, it pales in comparison to my interest in applying behavioral science to the problems of the world. Even if what that boils down to is utilizing the same basic principles over and over again. This may explain why I end giving the promoting/inhibiting pressures talk over and over and over.

What gets me excited is the execution layer, designing and delivering something that moves the needle. If I can use a solution I designed before, so much the better; that just means I have more time for the next problem on down the line.

The love of new solutions is a different beast. I have an amazing engineering friend who delights in solving the same problem in new programming languages, just because she can. If she runs out of new languages, she just makes up some artificial constraint and then tries to solve the problem again. I once saw her try to program something using only the keys in the home row on her keyboard. She failed…but she had a lot of fun doing it.

Certainly there are correlations: it is often true that a hard problem requires a new solution. But I’m not as convinced that the predilection goes both directions or is always balanced. At the end of the day, something will always attract you more and knowing what floats your boat can actually be helpful in thinking about the right roles to choose. One of the reasons that Chief Behavioral Officer is so appealing to me is that it applies an existing body of knowledge against a diverse set of problems. Had new solutions been my focus, academia probably would have been a better home than it ended up being.

It is also worth thinking about as a manager, particularly in terms of attracting and rewarding talent. I’ve talked extensively about the importance of work worth doing and knowing what someone views as meaningful is a huge part of that. Trying to lure or reward someone with hard problems when what they want is new solutions may mean that you miss out.

Feels like we could probably make a test for this fairly easily. Create a challenge, let someone complete it, then offer them a choice between a new challenge or repeating the same one with the requirement of an original solution. We can add that to the long list of “Things Matt Wallaert will eventually build”. It is starting to be a very long list.

Side note: I sometimes get the feeling that no matter what I’ve thought about, someone else has already thought of it. I’m willing to bet that somewhere, someone has talked about pretty much every subject I’ve ever brought up in a blog. And after writing this, I realized that maybe the reason that doesn’t bother me is that I don’t actually care about novelty, just challenge. Forget the sexy product/service/blog post, I just want the one that solves the problem so we can move on to the next thing.


Originally published at Matt Wallaert.