The danger of solution-focused thinking

There’s a prolific management saying, “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions.”

Leaders or managers want information they can act on. They want to fix the problem. And they want a script or playbook on how to make it happen.

But a laser-like focus on solutions only helps when applied to a well-understood problem. If the foundation is rocky, whatever is built upon it will crumble. So before you try to win the game, understand what game you’re playing and its rules first.

Organizational psychologist David Hofmann is well-known for his work on detecting, correcting, and preventing errors within companies and organizations. His research played a key role in helping NASA make valuable improvements to safety procedure following the 2003 Columbia space shuttle explosion.

As Adam Grant describes of Hofmann’s research in his brilliant new book Originals (which I just finished and highly recommend),

“A culture that focuses too heavily on solutions becomes a culture of advocacy, dampening inquiry.”

In the public health arena, I see this often. Take obesity as an example. It’s regarded as a major problem, both because of its supposed effect on human health, and its growing financial strain on healthcare systems and economies.

Right now, funders and are pouring millions of dollars into trying all sorts of behavioral and environmental interventions to prevent and treat obesity (for example, see here). In some cases, it’s a “kitchen sink” approach of trying a bunch of different interventions in the hopes that something will stick. Many of these are some combination of trying to increase physical activity and modify diet. Regardless, the focus, in many respects, is on solutions.

But as Dr. Peter Attia challenged in his 2013 TED talk, which has more than 2 million views,

What if some of our fundamental ideas about obesity are just wrong?”

In other words, what if we don’t fully understand the nature of the problem? And because we haven’t yet poured the scientific foundation of obesity’s etiology, our intense search for solutions is tenuous.

If we’re going to solve the challenge of obesity, do we need a little less advocacy and a little more inquiry?


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