Fall in love with the problem, not your solution

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The Hulu series “The Dropout” recounts the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, the startup that raised billions for revolutionary blood-testing technology that never worked. The show’s depiction of Holmes — who was convicted on fraud charges in January — suggests that her single-minded focus on succeeding blinded her to obstacles, including her scant knowledge of the challenges inherent in testing blood.

Watching the series, I’ve been repeatedly reminded of something Carey Jaros, president and CEO of GOJO Industries, said on my podcast Keeping Innovation Alive. Some of the best advice she’s ever heard for innovators is, “Fall in love with the problem, not your solution.”

Holmes’ case, of course, was extreme. But we’re all prone to stop looking for other, perhaps better solutions to a problem when we believe we’ve found one solution, especially if that one is based on prior experience. This habit, known as the Einstellung effect, is an example of our brains’ propensity to take shortcuts. Other factors, like pride, status and other people agreeing with our solution, can make us even more certain that the search is over, that we’ve found the best path forward.

Innovation requires a balance between expertise and what I call purposeful naivete. Expertise is crucial — you need experienced market researchers, designers, engineers, etc., on your team. But they all need to cultivate the ability to temporarily forget what they know and assess challenges with wide open minds.

In an interview on “The Ezra Klein Show” podcast, novelist and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki talked about “beginner’s mind.”

“In the beginner’s mind,” she said, “possibilities are endless, and in the expert’s mind, they’re few. And so, the idea is that in this state of not knowing, curiosity and engagement with the world arises, for lack of a better word. And that engagement, that curiosity is intimate and very, very alive.”

Curiosity is behind all creation. Writing in Harvard Business Review, professor and behavioral scientist Francesca Gino makes “the business case for curiosity.”

“When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions,” she says. “In addition, curiosity allows leaders to gain more respect from their followers and inspires employees to develop more-trusting and more-collaborative relationships with colleagues.”

However, she adds, in a survey she conducted across multiple industries, “only about 24 percent reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70 percent said they face barriers to asking more questions at work.”

In the HBR essay, she offers advice for fostering curiosity in organizations, and it’s worth a read. I would add another tip: Always set aside the first solution that you come up with and continue searching for others. Pretend that the first solution is intellectual property owned by a rival company and force yourself or your team to see what other approaches to the problem you can find. Your first idea might ultimately prove to be the best, but you won’t know that until you you’ve set aside what you know, stepped back and focused on falling in love with the problem. ●

Bill Nottingham is Managing partner of Nottingham Unlimited Ventures

Bill Nottingham

Managing partner
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