One of the scariest moments of my career was when I went to my mentor with a problem I was struggling to resolve and he said to me “Dani, there ARE NO right answers.” Here I was this young professional going to my wise and much more experienced mentor for guidance on how to find the right answer only to be told he could not give me what I was looking for because it doesn’t exist. GASP!!! Then he said to me, “Your job isn’t to find the right answer, your job is to find a good answer. There isn’t a right answer but there are options and your job is to find the best option.”
This moment in my career is the adult version of finding out who Santa Clause really is…I was utterly baffled and a bit disappointed. Why was this moment so difficult?
Well, most of us have spent many of our formative years being rewarded for having the right answer. Think back on all of your learning experiences all the way to pre-school…all of our learning is centered on knowing the right answer. Generally speaking, most academic achievements are based on grades, grades are based on tests, tests are based on having the right answers. For most of our lives, we have been conditioned to find the right answers and we are rewarded when we find it and punished when we don’t.
However, as adults, we are faced with thorny complex problems, that do not really have a right or wrong answer. In business, we are expected to solve problems like developing a competitive advantage, employee retention, or innovation to name a few. These types of problems don’t have a right answer. These types of problems have possibilities.
Since the time of that conversation with my mentor, I have come to realize there are very few situations in life where there is one right answer. Many of the problems we face in business and life, in general, do not have a right answer. So, how do you address a problem for which there is no right answer?
So, how do we retrain ourselves to solve problems that do not have answers? Here are a few tactics:
Recognize and Accept: This one is rather obvious, but if you want to get to the business of solving the types of problems that do not have a right answer, you have to accept the fact that there are no right answers. Break up with this idea of finding the one right answer.
Engage in What If Thinking: Imagine there were no resource constraints, give yourself permission to get it wrong, imagine you didn’t fear being ridiculed for having an outrageous idea…what might you come up with? What if thinking is the type of thinking where you start to wonder about all the possibilities.
Now, I am fully aware that none of us (or perhaps many of us) are not in a situation where we have access to unlimited resources…I get that. However, when we start out solving a problem by constraining ourselves with limitations we restrict our ability to come up with good ideas. And, what complex problems need are good ideas…and lots of them.
Test Assumptions: When you are trying to find a good answer, you have to be willing to question why something cannot be done. Often times when discussing solutions with clients I hear “but we can’t do that” or “we’ve never done that before” or my favorite “that isn’t how we do it.” To which, I always ask “how come?” So after you’ve engaged in what if thinking, evaluate your ideas carefully for constraints. For each constraint, ask, how come? The goal of this type of question is to evaluate if the limitations you see are real limitations. Perhaps, they were true at one point but no longer true. Perhaps, there are ways to overcome limitations that exist. Don’t just take limitations at face value, really examine them.
Get Comfortable with Not Knowing: In a world where people are rewarded for knowing, the idea of getting comfortable with not knowing is rather scary. However, when you are trying to address something like increasing associate retention or expanding market share, there isn’t a lot you are going to know. In these situations, you have to be okay with trying something out not knowing how it will turn out.
Test Many Options: Since many of the problems we face today, don’t have one right answer, finding a solution, often means, testing out several options. The testing doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. Focus groups, online surveys, social media discussions, all present some good options for testing out ideas before investing in one solution.
What strategies do you use when faced with a problem that doesn’t have one right answer?