Let’s say we can neatly divide the world into two groups: people who have problems and people who have solutions. Commerce happens because people who have solutions offer those solutions to the people with the appropriate problems.
There’s a matching problem. Not all problems have solutions. Not all solutions apply to any given problem. Just because you have a problem doesn’t mean it’s going to be solved. Just because you have a solution doesn’t mean it’s of any value.
There’s an interesting pathology that floats about that last point though. I call it “solutionism”.
Being a problem solver is empowering
A lot of people spend their entire lives preparing to be the sort who offers solutions. In a lot of senses, that’s what a lot of the focus of education in the US is all about. You take a class to learn a skill which has—historically—been of use in generating solutions for folks.
There’s an empowering narrative sitting behind this. You learn a skill and then are, as a consequence, more valuable. People who learn particularly challenging skills or skills at particularly high levels are thought to have acquired the most value. There’s a pride to this, those who obtain excellence in the most difficult of skills presume that they have the capacity to offer the most valuable solutions to the biggest problems.
Generally, you can find places where this narrative is supported. For instance, a very skillful accountant can find numerous ways to offer their skills as solutions to problems in the operation of a business, a government, or even an individual’s life. A very skillful doctor can be employed at hospitals around the country or world, solving the problems of their patients.
In practice, skill is valuable when the “problem havers” have a very well-developed sense of their needs. There’s been a lot of work done to make the need concrete, transactional, well-scoped. The very fine question has been asked and is just in need of someone with the answer.
Field of Dreams was dead wrong
Solutionism is the stance that occurs when empowered solution-havers think that possession of a solution is enough. It’s the feeling of having a swiss army knife of answers and, subsequently, the hard-earned right to take over the world.
“If you build it they will come…”
It turns out that this is just plain false. It’s very exciting, very gratifying, but just plain false. If you build it “they” almost certainly will not come. In practice, even if they already have those very fine questions and a fantastic sense for their own needs, you’ve still only just begun when you offer the solution.
In so many interesting cases, the people who you can ultimately serve with your skills haven’t even begun to understand their needs, their problems.
Solutionism is the hubris of believing that the empowerment of skill earns you the right to successfully solve the problems of your clients. You’ve won the game of commerce because you brought the most interesting toys.
What-ing before how-ing
Above I made this all sound very grandiose, but it’s also something that plays out in nearly every plan ever made. Let’s say you want to build a boat.
Okay, so you’re going to need wood, and perhaps a workshop. Probably to employ someone with expertise in woodworking… and boats! Do we have to build the engine, too? Now this is feeling very overwhelming, but surely there are people out there with those skills as well?
Concrete ideas are easy. There’s a certain kind of anxiety that’s soothed by talking about them, getting tangible. And, to be clear, that’s all a good thing. Without getting real there’d never be any forward motion.
But we also didn’t even think about what kind of boat we wanted, or why we really wanted it. Maybe if we really got down to it all we even wanted was a toy boat. How often does the whole process of planning and getting excited get derailed by the hows of the situation before the whats are even understood?
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses…”
Don’t listen to people talk about their faster horses, listen to them complain about getting to places slowly. About dealing with all the excrement.
The opposite of solutionism, as a provider seeking to do commerce by solving people’s problems, is service. It’s the humbling work of asking someone what’s wrong… and listening. You make their needs the center of your universe. You toss out all your shiny toys and go in with a different sort of skill: empathy.
The key skills in listening are being vulnerable and asking questions. It sounds like I’m talking about being a good friend now, not “commerce”, but it’s the same idea. Offering service to someone begins wherever they are.
So, perhaps we’d call this Problemism—the opposite approach.
If solutionism doesn’t work, does problemism? Well, no. Just knowing someone’s problems is not the same as resolving them.
If you come bearing only solutions then you will fail because you’ve presupposed too much and left so much of the burden of service on those you would seek to help. If you come only listening to problems, you’ll become a compatriot, but one without much to offer.
To maximize the chances of succes, you really want to approach from both sides at once. You want to be a really, really resourceful compatriot.
Imagine a vast, dark forest where on one side are all the hows and on the other all the whats and whys. Study of solutions, acquisiton of skills and experience, is the process of mapping out the forest starting from the hows. Empathetic understanding of the problems of people is building the map starting on the side of the whats. In such a twisted forest with so many false turns and dead ends, you’ll maximize your chances of crossing by having both of those maps and comparing notes.
The resourceful compatriot
To really solve people’s problems, focus on serving them. Get close, understand the need and respect it. But be resourceful, have many senses for how to make things better.
In the setting of a company, be aware of your assumptions and act to invalidate them. Be flexible to opportunities that may arise and create exposure and vulnerability so that they don’t pass by. But also be practiced and prepared and guide people’s sense of their problems toward the forest paths you know well.