The Careful Art of Problem Solving

by Kevin May

The Careful Art of Problem Solving

The ability to solve problems quickly is now crucial to the successful running of any business. There are more obstacles to be overcome and more testing situations to navigate than ever before. The Internet Age has brought forth so many new opportunities, but it has also introduced layers of constantly shifting complexity that present previously unseen difficulties.

But, even more important than solving problems quickly is making sure they are solved well. This starts by being able to recognize the difference between real problems and everyday challenges.

Challenges are the usual difficulties a business faces. These are the tough yards that have to be covered as part of running a commercial enterprise. It requires skill and application and, although there are no guarantees that things will always work out perfectly, there is a clear sense of the nature of the difficulty and what the desired outcome looks like.

Tackling challenges is where hard work comes in and core competencies are leveraged. The challenges that a business face often define what the business is, and its ability to meet those challenges better than the rest of the field is what on the surface constitutes much of its value and viability.

Challenges are part of the life of the business, and are there to be met and grappled with. The business anticipates challenges and equips itself with tools, processes and expertise so that it can regularly deliver solutions to them.

Problems are another kind of difficulty altogether. They differ from challenges in their degree of familiarity. They are the irregular difficulties that nobody sees coming, for which no templates exist, and which sometimes involve new factors that even defy clear description.

No matter how daunting the prospect, there is rarely much question about what needs to happen to address a challenge. With a problem, it’s often less clear even where to begin let alone where to go.

Problems are rarely binary. There is no straightforward way to make them just go away. They aren’t amenable to the same tools, processes and expertise used to deal with the standard challenges of the business. They are different, and treating them as if they are the same can often make the situation worse.

There is a predictability about challenges that means repeatable ways of dealing with them can be developed. Problems, by their comparatively unprecedented nature, are more elusive. They require experience rather than expertise, lateral thinking rather than focused analysis, and imagination and guile rather than application of process.

This is where the unreasonable power of creativity comes in. Creativity isn’t just about artifacts, it’s a way of thinking. It’s more of an approach than a process. It’s about finding a new way of framing things, asking better questions, and harnessing fresher perspectives.

It involves a different kind of difficult that can be scarier than anything involved with dealing with normal challenges. The answer doesn’t always lie in the conventional data. It is more about a leap than an extrapolation.

Creativity can’t be forced through conscious effort, but comes together through careful observation, mental sifting, and the percolation of ideas. The drive for ‘right first time’ only results in ‘wrong every time’ when it comes to addressing problems.

It goes beyond approach to expectation. Some problems aren’t even there to be solved. Some of them never end. Sometimes it is more important to understand them and to let them iterate. Challenges are there to be overcome, but problems need to be accommodated.

Challenges can be demanding, but the ability to cope with them is really just commercial table stakes. True competitive advantage lies not in the ability of the business to deal with its regular difficulties, but in how well it can manage its exceptional ones.

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Kevin MayKevin May, founding partner of Sticks, is a veteran of the UK and US advertising industries. Sticks – with offices in Seattle (USA) and Oxford (UK) – was founded to provide a more flexible and circumspect strategic resource for businesses needing to deal with the sort of unprecedented situations arising from the more fluid and unpredictable environment of the digital age.

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