Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. Agree or disagree? It prompted debate in a LinkedIn group about the relative merits of focusing on the problems or solutions in career support.

Based on my organisational development experience, I’ve found it insightful applying change management techniques to address job and career challenges. Here’s a mock illustration taken from my book, Learning to Leap, about different approaches to the same issue. Neither is right or wrong, and both have advantages and disadvantages.

Einstein - problem solving

Problem-centered

This approach starts with exploring the problem, its features, causes and effects, in a linear fashion. It appeals to realists, the rationally and analytically minded, who prefer taking an objective view and are curious. It works best if the problem is unclear and there are risks or costs if you get the diagnosis wrong. You can come up with the wrong solution if you don’t identify the problem accurately.

Beware becoming defined by your problem and treating it as a comfort blanket. Taking this line can be counter-productive if you are lacking in confidence and self-esteem. Dwelling too much on the problem or over-defining it can result in procrastination, inertia or feed existing pessimism. It feels easier just to keep focusing on what’s wrong and not how to fix it with action.

I’ve worked with a lot of career changers who spent much of their life climbing the wrong mountain and fighting the wrong fight. Arlene Hirsch, Career Counselor

  1. Identify the problem –  I want to change job or maybe career. I like the company and get on well with my colleagues, but I’m struggling to perform like I have in the past. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. 
  2. Analyse the root causes – After personal reflection with support from a coach, I realise that what has worked for me in the past is no longer enough. My desire to leave is a symptom of the real problem which is about adapting to changes in working practices using technology. Other people are using social media, but I find it overwhelming and haven’t done anything about it. I’ve avoided embracing social media because I fear the unknown, don’t want to appear stupid and don’t know where to start.
  3. Determine solutions to the problem – I’m thinking of getting a friend/colleague who knows about social media to show me, or going on a course or teaching myself or…
  4. Analyse the solutions – I have done some research and weighed up the pros and cons of each development option including time and costs, and drawn some conclusions.
  5. Select the best solution – I’m now clear which solution suits my situation, personality, how I learn best and the cost-benefits.
  6. Develop action plan – I know what I’m going to do to make this happen, how, when and where. I will review the situation after using my new skills for a specific period.

Solution-centered

This approach turns the notion of a ‘problem’ on its head. Problems can be real downers. Success, even imagined, can bring the feelgood factor. It starts with a greater acceptance of the problem and moves more quickly to doing something about it.

Accentuating the positive can be more liberating and motivating for some people. It’s a mindset of inquiry through appreciating strengths and focusing on possibilities – what is right with me rather than what is wrong with me. The approach is more discursive and subjective, works best if the problem is clear cut, you are feeling good about yourself and you want to build on these positive emotions by tapping into your creativity.

Your solution may define you, so beware glossing over the problem, ignoring genuine constraints and realities, rushing to a single solution and having an unhelpful balance between the breadth and depth of your exploration.

People who leap too soon to a desire to focus on solutions, I find, are often uncomfortable with staying with uncertainty. Liane Hambly, Career Developer

  1. Discover (the best of what is) – Although I don’t use social media, I go to lots of business events, enjoy them and bring back good practices and contacts to follow up.
  2. Identify factors helping (why is it working?) – It’s my expertise in my field of work, the breadth of my experience and my affable nature that help me to be effective at these events.
  3. Create a vision (what might be) – I’ve imagined a situation where I can replicate these things online. Although it will stretch me, I can see myself illustrating my expertise, publishing testimonials, highlighting relevant experience in various profiles and still being able to meet people in person through the connections I grow.
  4. Create a dialogue (test assumptions) – I’ve consulted a few friends and colleagues to tease out some of my assumptions and gain their perpectives and ideas.
  5. Select current strengths to leverage (what should be) – It is now clear to me what I do well and need to use more and differently, who can help me and how I can make this happen.
  6. Develop action plan (what will be) – I know what I’m going to do, where and when. I know what my success looks like.

As with many things in life, it’s often a question of balance.

Which approach appeals to you more? How could you use them to help with your job and career challenges?