Falling in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution
Sunday marked the beginning of spring. When the tulips and irises start blooming, it feels like a fresh start. We’re lucky enough to get these windows of inspiration a few times each year. These days, I find the spring to be filled with promise, but when I was a kid, the start of school was what signaled a new era to me. And I loved it. It may not surprise you to know that I was the kid whose hand shot up any time a teacher asked a question. I was lucky that Connie Kramer — my gifted and talented teacher — taught me about Bloom’s Taxonomy and the value of asking the right questions in the right order before jumping to a conclusion. I learned that while asking the right questions often takes more effort in the short-term, the results are far more gratifying in the long-term. Since then, I have been an advocate for gathering enough data and information to make an informed decision rather than immediately jumping to a conclusion (or a solution). In fact, I now teach this concept on the first day of my college class on Social Entrepreneurship — and it becomes a semester-long refrain — because as social entrepreneurs we have to “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”
To illustrate this point, I want to share my response to a question from a budding social entrepreneur who read the post, “Pearls of Wisdom: Advice to Rising Social Entrepreneurs.”
Q: I don’t understand this: “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” My problem is high unemployment in my area. I want to create jobs and the solution is job development. Please explain.
A: I am so glad you asked this question — it is THE fundamental way of thinking that differentiates social entrepreneurs from the traditional charitable approach. (BTW — we have a step-by-step, social entrepreneurship process called Social Alchemy that dives deeper into this concept.)
First, social entrepreneurs focus on the problem they are solving, not the solution. So, in your case, why does your community have high unemployment? Is it related to education, a skill gap or barriers to employment? You could create jobs as a solution but still not solve the problem of high unemployment. So, the first step in social alchemy is to understand the problem through research, conversations with those impacted and mapping of existing resources.
Second, social entrepreneurs believe that the best solutions are bottom up — they bring those we serve into the solution. In your case, you have two customers — employers AND employees. What jobs do the people in your area want? What would get them to a living wage? What are the high vacancy jobs that employers cannot fill? Where is the best nexus between job demand and job supply?
If you follow this logic, you aren’t just creating jobs, you are creating a vibrant future for your community — a strong pipeline of employment. Renewed economic development. Living wage careers with benefits, not just jobs. Wrap-around services that support employment through access to transportation and childcare. You get the idea — this is precisely how we as social entrepreneurs think and solve problems instead of “falling in love a solution.” We look at the whole ecosystem, identify where it is stuck and work toward a solution that gets the system unstuck and keeps it that way. Then, as the problem evolves (e.g., the job market before COVID and after COVID), you can adapt the solution accordingly.
As we approach our work with a renewed sense of purpose this spring, I hope you reflect on this strategy and ask more questions before you dive into ideas and solutions. Remember that only 20% of ideas are viable due to timing and other feasibility questions — so, for this reason alone, by not fully investigating the problem, you limit your chance for success. If you focus on the problem, you are more likely to unlock a solution that is a gamechanger for the community, not merely an idea. It is only through digging deep that we get to the root of our problems and discover the often-unlikely solutions and collaborations that truly make a difference. We would love your thoughts about this approach and how you use it in your organization.