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Wheels are turning  

As the 21st century advances, we—as individuals, families, schools, work groups, organizations, and communities—must meet the challenge of solving more and increasingly complex problems. The end point of “feeling good” that oriented many problem-solving efforts in the past is likely to be subordinated to a “get it right” mentality if we wish be competent and accomplished. That’s not to say, we can’t have a lot of fun along the way.

Fundamental to this evolution in thought is recognizing the opportunity a problem offers (see What is a problem) and the education it holds within. As the representation below shows, the challenge is getting to the learning component that exists at a problem’s core. Effective problem requires a willingness to continually revise our understanding of the problem, using the information generated by the problem-solving process. The notion of a “mistake = a failing of some type” is recognized as archaic. To the contrary, confusion, frustration, and mistakes are more appropriately viewed as invaluable parts of the problem-solving process, provided we learn from them.



Adapted from: Leichtman, Harry M. (1996). Helping Work Environments Work.
Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America. Reproduced with permission.


Two real-life illustrations of how our understanding of a problem changes as information is generated:

Clinical situation: As part of an ongoing consultation to a school, a request was made to observe—for the purpose of evaluation—a preschooler. The child was seen as “odd”, grimacing, and frequently touching and grabbing other children. Given that this was the start of a school year, the staff wondered about major mental illness, worried about the safety of the other children, and felt perhaps a more “specialized” classroom might be in order. The consultant made a home visit. After briefly interviewing the mother, the seated consultant was startled to see the child charging toward him, a book in hand. As he got closer, the child suddenly leapt in the air; his flight ended with a powerful collision with the consultant’s chest. Now happily settled in the consultant’s lap, the child exclaimed, “Read this!” The consultant read. The child greatly enjoyed the story but felt compelled to periodically grab the reader’s face and then move his own face to within inches of it. The process of reading interspersed with face-to-face encounters continued until the story was over. The child was quick to say, “Thank you.”

The child was never seen again but the consultant did hear from the staff in a short time:

“The eye test did confirm the child is legally blind. He’s doing great but those glasses with lenses as thick as coke bottles are really something else.”

Work situation: The productivity of the work group was dramatically displayed on the chart assembled by the manager (reproduced below). After almost meeting the objective the first month that the new goals had been established, the group’s productivity had precipitously dropped. It eventually leveled off—and with some slight fluctuations—but stayed notably below the fixed, stated goal. In the team meeting, reviewing the performance chart, the manager angrily challenged his subordinates, “You have to do better, you have to try harder!”


In private, the work group members were furious. They felt the manager had set unrealistic goals. Why? From their perspective, the manager was pandering to the higher-ups in hopes of securing a promotion. In truth, the setting of these goals reflected a significant increase over the previous year’s goals set for new business. The group—in fact, very hard working—tried to meet the new goal set for January. With a bit of good luck and a Herculean effort, they almost succeeded. While the work group continually exceeded its’ previous year’s new business, it never matched the new goals set by the manager. The manager never got his promotion.

Tip: We are in a constantly motivated state. Goals only have positive motivational properties when they are achievable.

To test your problem-solving prowess, Challenges await. If you’re mindful of your efforts, you’ll recognize the abovementioned reformulation process is continually played out in your actions. And you’ll recognize the value of mistakes provided you are not deterred by them.