what water can teach you about problem solving

When solving a problem, perspective can be the difference maker in finding a solution. When working with my clients, I’ll sometimes change the perspective to try and get them to think differently about the situation at hand. By forcing them to think about the problem in a new way, they can often arrive at the best answer—even if it’s unexpected. 

One way to change perspective is by trying to solve a wicked problem. Wicked problems are problems—like how to provide clean water for the world—that are either nearly unsolvable, or at the very least, can’t possibility be solved by one person, idea, or solution. 

Problems like these require you to first define them as deeply as possible before turning to problem solving. And to continue coming back to defining by “changing the camera angle” if you don’t hit a path forward with a solution. Here’s how it looks:

  • Point of view. Think about the problem from someone else’s point of view. What would the customer think? What would your competitor NOT want to see you do? What would the thought leaders in the industry say? What would a brand new employee say? 
  • Timeline. What would you do differently if this had to be done by Friday? What would you do differently if you had three years to fix it? Usually the shortest timeline conversation will strip away the fluffy “like to do” aspects and get down to the real issues and pain points at hand.
  • Resources. When you play with resource allocation, you can often open up new thoughts. What if this was the only thing you had to do? What if the raw materials were free? What if you made $1M per sale? How would that change how you market? 
  • Restate the problem. Even after exhaustive definition and perspective manipulation, sometimes you just need to think make the problem bigger, smaller, or just…different. Instead of raising the price, how can you explain the increase in value? Instead of announcing the store closing, how can you explain the benefit of centralizing operations or going virtual? 

This last tactic of restating the problem was illustrated beautifully in Slingshot, a documentary on Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway. Kaman is genius and a serial inventor who consistently tries to solve wicked problems. The bulk of the documentary is about his quest to provide clean drinking water worldwide because by solving this problem, we could “empty half of the hospital beds worldwide.” At one point in the documentary, he explained that we know how to filter almost anything out of water—if we only knew what we were filtering. The contaminants in water in one place would require a certain technology while bacteria in another place would need different tech. The solution to the problem was a shift in the camera angle: Instead of filtering the impurities out of the water, what if we filtered the water out of the impurities? With this perspective and frame he was able to see that vaporizing the water allowed for collecting pure drinking water at an astonishing rate. Problems aren’t nearly as difficult as we make them out to be—or we need to turn the volume up on them up a bit to see the micro-aspects. The solution to your next problem might just require you redefine the variables and then look at each deeply from all angles.