Have you seen ‘solutions in search of problems’? I bet you have! This happens when in teams that are gathered to tackle a specific issue, we observe dynamics early on that move the group towards the design of a particular solution without having a clear understanding of the problem. From that point forward, all the analyses and conversations revolve around developing the solution that one or more team members were promoting. However, the team never performed a basic diagnostic of the issue, or the analyses were skewed from the beginning. It was always ‘a solution in search of a problem’.

Sometimes I see this type of approach in my work at the intersection of data analysis and policymaking. It also happens in every other field. I have even found myself collecting data and evidence in a way that responds to specific solutions –because we all can fall in that trap–. This need to sort things out and jump right to the end is certainly inherent to our human nature. We are all in search of cognitive closure.

After almost 10 years of working in this field, I still need to make conscious efforts to go against my need to quickly reach concrete explanations to complex issues. However, with the years, I transformed those conscious efforts into mechanisms that guide my daily work and don’t allow solutions to take too much space too early on. 

Solution-guided processes to explore data take us directly into a self-reinforcing loop. It is a type of confirmation bias that locks us in a tendency to seek out information that supports something the group already believes. Good diagnostics to inform good solutions are underestimated, and it’s easy to believe that problems are self-evident. 

So what are the mechanisms that we can use to identify those flaws early on in our work and prevent us from falling into that trap? Here are a few ones that I use. 

Categories, cover them all

When studying a topic, I create categories (a.k.a. frameworks) for my analyses. Creating categories to segment data analyses forces us to explore different dimensions of the same issue. In the last few months, I have been studying business ecosystems in the United States and how we can manage to create more inclusivity in those spaces. One of the focuses of my work is the performance of businesses owned by people of color. Last year with my team at Drexel, we came up with 3 categories that we always look at to assess the performance of those businesses: number, size, and sector. They are not 100% comprehensive of what entails to be a business owned by people of color, but believe me, they are the bulk. And every time I start studying a business ecosystem in a different region, it’s certainly a useful exercise to cover all those three categories and understand what’s going on in each dimension. Caveat: it’s beneficial to create categories, but when those categories do not fit your information anymore, it’s time to change them. Besides, if they are not grounded in research and a certain level of expertise, those categories could end up narrowing our scope. Start creating and using categories only if you are willing to let them go when time arrives! 

Guided brainstorming 

Last week, I read an article about mind maps, and I believe they are a great example of guided brainstorming. You start with a big piece of paper, write down your question or goal in the center, and start to grow the tree with ideas directly connected to each other, from the center node outwards. I realized I used mind maps many times but without having a name for them. I usually take a piece of paper (for my next mind map I will take a big one!), and I start writing down ideas and connecting them. I keep pushing the boundaries of the network. Sometimes I give myself a few hours between new iterations of the mind map. Sometimes, a few days. As I see this, it’s a creative process. And the word ‘guided’ is important here. We need to know our objective and posing that objective at the center it’s certainly a smart move. 

Open-ended efforts 

Finally, in the early stages of a project, it is intellectually rewarding to set up a few days for researching without a north star (I believe productivity is misunderstood or overrated!). I give myself and my team a few days without clear direction in the initial stages of those endeavors where we need to come up with something new. A framework that does not exist, a platform that has not yet been created, a process that has not been mapped before. However, as simple as this strategy looks like, it takes courage to implement this approach in teams. Researching without a north star forces team members to deal with uncertainty and frustration. Still and all, this approach paves the way for new ideas to emerge.