The Seductiveness of a Problem
Juicy problems lure us into problem solving. But, what if the right move is to do...nothing?
Happy Sunday evening, friends!
Hope you’re enjoying your weekend wherever you are. We spent ours doing cannonballs off the diving board! 🏊♂️
When I originally wrote the description for this newsletter experiment, I included “problem solving” as a key topic. Today, I’m sharing a related idea that’s been bouncing around my head - down-solving vs. up-solving. Let me know what you think!
Side note: I originally set a goal of growing this community of curious problem solvers to 100. We’re currently at 61 strong. Well on our way!
If you know anyone that might be interested in the topics we explore here, I appreciate a share:
See you next week!
@dbsmasher published “Not My Job.” Great post about being glue and filling gaps in an org.
I’ve been sharing around this short YouTube video on creating more helpful metrics dashboards.
In Search of Nails…
When we were expanding live chat at Automattic, I spent several hours exploring a hunch: Did the always-available, quick answers provided in live chat create customer dependence? Phrased another way, if you knew someone was available 24/7 to answer your question, would you default to asking the question instead of exploring on your own?
The answer I found: probably. As in, if you contacted us via live chat two times, you were slightly more likely to contact us a third time and so on.
The natural next question was one of action: So, what should we do about it? I jumped straight into action mode. “Oooh - I found a potential nail. Grab the hammer!”
I’ve started thinking of this as down-solving - quick, action-oriented, logical problem solving. It’s an easy default for a few reasons.
We’re impatient. It’s uncomfortable to live in the land of “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.”
It’s defensible. It’s much easier to explain “I did XYZ” than “I’m still exploring ABC.”
We can check the box. On to the next thing!
By contrast, up-solving involves a more patient, contemplative, and, dare I say it, strategic approach. You begin by asking questions like “So what? Does this problem really need solving?” You raise your head up and look across the organization. Who else has done something similar? Who else could I talk to about this? You also have time to explore oblique solutions and test the illogical. This is when you come up with ideas like, in fact, raising not decreasing prices might increase sales.
For up-solving to be effective, we have to develop what Oliver Burkeman described as a “taste for having problems”. Patience and curiosity, not just box-checking.
Both are valuable. To borrow terminology from Rory Sutherland, “narrow context problems" - those with little ambiguity and a set of universally accepted rules - work well with our natural tendencies. Grab that hammer and smash some nails!
“Wide context problems” - packed with vagueness, possibility for multiple right answers, and no precise set of rules - are better suited for the patient approach that doesn’t feel so natural.
We’re inclined towards down-solving, but most of the problems we encounter on a daily basis are wide context problems. They’re better suited for an up-solving approach. Consider this a nudge to develop a taste for having problems, not just a love for smashing nails.
Imagine you run a hotel. In an effort to cut costs, you replace the door person with an automatic door. Savings achieved, but at what cost?
Sutherland calls this the “doorman fallacy” (I’ll use “door person”). Applying logical, narrow context thinking, we miss the idea that a door person also serves as a status signal, security presences, and much more.
A door person and an automatic door perform the same narrow function, but they’re not synonymous. Narrow context thinking (or down-solving) misses much of the non-obvious detail.