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  • Writer's pictureLisa Meee

Fitting the Solution to the Problem

One of the events I help organize each year is a Star Trek convention. People who’ve never been to a Star Trek (or, really, any fan-run science fiction themed) convention don’t really understand the role of adult parties in that space. The parties give attendees the chance to do one of their favorite things; sit around and talk over drinks about their favorite things.

These days,the parties at these conventions (or at least the ones I’m involved in) are very careful about checking ID and making sure not to serve alcohol to underage patrons. From an attendee perspective, this means that your ID is likely to be checked at each party you attend, even if you’re wearing a wristband from the party down the hall.

Last year, one of the guests of honor at attended a party I hosted. Slightly annoyed at having been asked for ID several times over the course of the evening, he offered up a suggestion. “You should just tell all your parties that they don’t need to card the guests of honor. that would save everyone a lot of work and effort.”

From his perspective, the important requirement was that the guest of honor not be inconvenienced by being asked for his ID at each party. The challenge, from my perspective as someone responsible for convention and to the running of the parties, is that what will solve his problem neatly will create a whole different set of problems for people who’s role he doesn’t understand. The convention badge he’d like people to use for ID doesn’t have his picture on it, and is easy to hand off to someone else. If we set an expectation that the special guest ID means you get in to whatever party you want, we’re setting up a system with a pretty big loophole in it.

This is a pretty low-stakes example, but it illustrates an important point. What solves his problem creates different problems for other people. So we find ourselves in a position of needing to make a choice, not about which solution is better, but about which problem we are trying to solve. Are we solving for maximum convenience for our special guest? Or are we solving for making sure everybody who walks in to parties where alcohol is served not only is of legal drinking age, but can prove it if they are asked to do so.

When I first met my husband, who is a software engineer, he would surprise me by telling me that I was moving too quickly to a solution. I thought the whole goal of the universe was to get to a solution as quickly as possible. When one does this, however, one risks solving the wrong problem. When one does this, it doesn’t really matter how effectively that incorrect problem is being solved.

This happens in my professional life a lot, too. I write training for corporations, but when the root cause of a problem isn’t that people don’t know *how* to do something then training isn’t going to solve the problem of them not doing it. There are a lot of reasons people don’t do the thing their manager or someone in the corporate office thinks they should do. Sometimes they are being rewarded to do something different - for example, call center employees who are measured on how quickly they can get off the phone have a lot of incentives to solve things quickly - even if that quick solution leads to another call later. That second call is someone else’s problem. No amount of training on taking your time with customers is going to supersede the metrics people are being measured against.

This shows up in personal relationships, as well. When I get insecure, it helps me a lot if my partners just tell me nice things about myself. When I’ve been with people who think that, instead, they should dig into why I need such reassurance rather than simply providing it to me, they’re not solving the problem I’m facing. The argument that at least one person has made is that they want to root out my insecurities and that coddling them won’t do that. For me, though, that simply doesn’t work. Withholding positive sentiments until I can provide them for myself, or until I don’t need them at all has been tried extensively. Even if it might, someday, lead to me being tougher and developing better coping skills, I maintain that it’s not unreasonable for me to address the problem of my immediate suffering rather than the underlying combination of brain chemistry and intrusive thoughts that causes me to feel bad about myself sometimes.

This is why it’s important to be very careful in your problem definition. When I am in this headspace, I am now surrounded by people who can say to me “I am sorry you are feeling this way, and I will tell you the nice things I already think about you that will make it better.” This works for me very effectively. As long as I stay away from people who define my need for affirmation as the root problem, I can get my needs met.

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