On being a professional problem solver

I spent one morning on a recent weekend with my oldest daughter at the Tracy Aviary here in Salt Lake City. I never considered myself a “bird” person; however, my daughter’s academic interest in animal behavior has sparked a before unregistered curiosity. Recently, a new space for Kea’s was opened giving the birds a large area and visitors a much better chance to observe their behavior. Kea’s are an olive-green parrot from New Zealand; I had read they were good problem solvers, but I had underestimated what this meant.

During our recent visit, the staff assembled close to a dozen puzzles built using everyday household items–PVC pipe, plastic containers, balls, etc.—each one designed to be solved with the reward being treats falling out when successfully disassembled. As the staff member worked, the Kea would immediately take to solving the puzzle. But here is the strange part—the Kea didn’t eat the treats. He went quickly to the next puzzle. The reward wasn’t the treat, but releasing of the items from captivity.

The reward was solving the problem.

When asked to describe “what I do,” I used to respond that I was a “professional problem solver.” Although my academic background is chemistry, it’s been quite a while since I worked in the field.

As a professional problem solver, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of tackling the most current—often urgent—problem. Behaving just like the Kea.

It’s taken time, but I no longer jump into problem-solving mode at the drop of a hat; I have found looking for meaningful impact to be a more meaningful reward. I wish I had learned this early in my career.

While solving an isolated, single problem has immediate rewards, working on a problem that has impact takes time and requires multiple steps and is part of a comprehensive strategy (i.e., the solution is part of a BIGGER problem). After all, the first part of any good strategy is diagnosing the problem—we don’t design strategy around non-problems.

While we can be amazed at the problem-solving skills of the Kea, make a point not follow his example. We don’t want to be trapped solving problems for rewards that we don’t need—rewards that don’t have an impact.

We don’t want to get caught up in the high-tech version of busy-work.

My current professional role is much easier to define; however, I still consider myself a professional problem solver—a professional problem solver who seeks problems that when solved will have a meaningful impact on either my organization or the individuals I get to work with.

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