Sex, Drugs, and Problem Solving, Part III

Overcoming the difficulties of the problem-solving approach

Premature Elucidation

A common problem I have experienced and seen in others is something I call (tongue-in-cheek) premature elucidation. This means providing a solution before the prospect is ready for one. The steps that should be taken before a solution is broached, and cooperative ways of broaching a solution, are discussed later in this essay.

Especially if you have successfully solved problems in the past, you typically have a lot of enthusiasm about solving problems for new prospects. Furthermore, assuming you do withhold the solution, it is difficult to keep the prospect engaged without wasting their time with questions that seem ignorant. This is why premature elucidation is so common and difficult to overcome.

One kind of premature elucidation is responding to presentation of a problem by exposing a larger problem. When a person presents a problem or a complaint to me, I frequently see it as symptomatic of a larger, more abstract, or recurring issue. For example, while checking out at the hardware store, the clerk made me wait, saying, “Sorry for the delay, but our computer just went down.” I considered the following responses:

  • Expose the larger problem: "Your company's computer system vendor has quality problems."
  • Abstract the problem: "It's sad that management fails to understand the worker experience."
  • Describe a recurring issue: "Funny, this problem happens at the library, the grocery store, and the car rental center, too."

To me, this is an effective problem-solving method: Seeing the larger issue helps me determine whether a solution will be durable or ultimately fail due to forces not previously accounted for. Abstracting the problem helps me think of other instances of the problem. Solutions to those instances may inform a solution to the problem at hand. Recurring issues can either cause a one-time solution to fail, or yield solutions that have worked in past occurrences.

Unfortunately, when I describe the big picture or the systemic problem, I frequently get a negative reaction from people. They become irritated, ignore me, or give me a glazed look. Assuming I have correctly understood the problem, some other reasons why this might be happening are as follows. Many of them are interrelated.

  • They see the larger problem as purely academic, irrelevant to the issue at hand.
  • They don't see recognition of the larger problem as conducive to curing the symptom.
  • Whereas I can think about the larger problem as a source of creative solutions to the smaller problem, they experience overwhelming fear when they think about the larger problem.
  • Sometimes, my insight into the larger, recurring, or more abstract issue makes the solution simple or obvious. If the person has struggled to find or execute a solution, then this makes their efforts seem wasted. A simple solution to a big problem will not be accepted by a prospect easily.
  • They want to focus on the smaller problem they have a hope of solving. Indeed, they may already have a solution in mind for the smaller problem. It hurts their ego to focus on the unsolved larger problem at the expense of the small problem they have solved.
  • They don't want to believe that the problem is bigger than they presented it.
  • They see presentation of a problem as a wound which I open wider when I describe the systemic problem.
  • They take the systemic problem personally.
  • They want to hide the larger problem because they are part of it. The small problem, however, can be blamed on others

Finally, for a variety of reasons, your prospect is likely to feel pigeonholed if you attempt to solve their problem prematurely. Because premature elucidation is so tempting and easy, and because it is so pervasive, I will assume that you want to delay offering a specific solution for as long as possible.

The One-Night Stand

Another problem with problem-solving is what I call the one-night stand. This is where you succeed in solving a problem for some one, but leave them with negative feelings so that they never return with problems again. They may feel that they were forced to turn to you for a solution, but they will not do so again. Regardless of the reason, if I create a negative reaction in some one who has presented me with a problem, then they will eventually stop presenting me with problems. But when you think of a problem as an opportunity to add or unlock value, you want people to bring you problems!

Considering that you want people to return to you with their problems, I feel it is instructive to ask, what kind of person is guaranteed to return, no matter what? The answer is, an addict is almost guaranteed to return to his supplier.

Part IV, The Quick Fix, discusses how drug addiction is relevant to problem-solving.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 6 December 2006 12:12 AM