The problem with problem solving

I originally trained as an engineer, and at the core of everything we learnt was design thinking and problem solving. We were taught how to use our expertise to pull things apart, find problem’s, analyse options and provide solutions. And for most of my career as a sustainability consultant, I have unquestionably applied this way of thinking to almost everything I’ve done.

But recently — I have been starting to seriously question the whole problem solving thing.

Why? After completing a Masters in Psychology and studying Regenerative Development — I have become increasingly aware of its limitations. Don’t get me wrong, problem solving has a useful role in the right context, e.g. if you want to design a simple system. But if you want to work with potential, as we do in complex challenges such as wellbeing, gender inequality and climate change, there appears to be more appropriate tools in the design toolbox.

Problems solving

Taking a backward looking — problem solving perspective is one of the great strategic flaws when trying to create lasting change. When we take this perspective, its psychologically primes the quality of our thinking, leading us to converge on mitigating weaknesses and ‘doing less harm’.

While it may produce a solution ‘out there’ in the world, it tends to fail to inspire lasting generative change.

The reality is, challenges like wellbeing, gender inequality and climate change are complex and interdependent. They are challenges that not only require solutions ‘out there’ in the world, but they also have an inner component — in shifting peoples underlying beliefs, attitudes and assumptions.

Therefore, using a process that narrows awareness and fails to inspire people to meaningful action is perhaps not the best way to approach social and environmental innovation.

Future making

Future making is the practice of co-creating new potential.

Instead of only looking backwards at what’s wrong and needs solving — Future making is forward looking, and also asks what could be right. It’s a process for opening our possibilities up and catalysing potential in a way that pulls people forward. Future making asks: what are the unique seeds of potential that want to be actualised? How can we go beyond what ‘is’ — and become what ‘could be’?

These emerging practices lead to radically different ways of approaching social and environmental innovation. It’s a powerful practice for mobilising creativity, imagination and commitment in the service of creating a better future.

Future making ‘creates the space’ for people to come together in concert and bring something they care deeply about into existence.

Future making promotes meaningful shifts in awareness, unifying the change that wants to happen ‘out there’ in the world and the change that wants to happen within us — in our underlying beliefs, values and worldviews.

What are some examples of future making practices? There are many including Theory U, Social Labs, Appreciative Inquiry and Humble Consulting.

Future making in action

An example of ‘future making’ in action is the classic case of a school with a bullying problem. We all know no school has ever really ‘solved’ a bullying problem. But what many schools are doing today to address this challenge, is using Appreciative Inquiry to co-create futures.

Instead of focusing on their problems, these schools come together to ask — what brings our school fully alive? What are the seeds of potential that exist within these perceived bully’s that wants to be expressed? How can they contribute to the seeds of potential within the broader school community? Appreciative Inquiry has been shown to elevate schools to new levels of potential and vitality — and issues like bullying tend to fall away as part of the process.

The wolf you feed grows

It’s time to move beyond only seeing the world as a problem to be solved and co-create a future we want to live in.

What do you think? Which wolf are you feeding? Are you using the right practices for the future you want to create?

Because the quality of results we create is closely related to the quality of our practices.

If we want to create a future of greater possibility, we best use an inclusive and comprehensive range of practices that appropriately address the challenges we face. Its where the real leverage for change lies.

Imagine what it would be like to live in a world where more people had the skills of problem solving and future making. A whole generation of people with the skills to come together, discover what they care about and co-create it. The capacity to sense and actualise potential on the other side of problems, and become the change they seek.

This is an example of the work we do at the Benefit Mindset project. We support schools, organisations and communities with developing future making skills. If you’d like to learn more about how you can develop this capacity, we’d love to hear from you.