A Problem Statement about Problem Statements

Norman Wright's picture

Back in September, Todd Litman had a great piece about problems being relabeled as “issues”. This exposes one of the more rampant issues (pun intended) we have in our profession: weak writing. But it also helped me crystallize something I’ve thought about for quite some time: could it be that problems are not important? They are inevitable, these problems—when we solve one, another rises up to take its place—but are they important? Do they deserve so much of our attention?

Some problems are simply a matter of perspective. We agonize over congestion on the DC Beltway while forgetting that dead horses once clogged our streets. Other problems are so vast and nebulous that we get lost in the complexity (e.g., sustainability). And when we create our plans, the subject of problems takes up a great deal of focus.

That’s the approach we’ve used, anyway, ever since we adopted that hoary old chestnut known as THE RATIONAL PLANNING MODEL.

I imagine you know this one by heart: it starts by collecting data, then analyzing data, then defining problems, then developing solutions, then developing alternatives to those solutions, then designing a way to implement said solutions, and at some point you have a plan. Maybe.

I have written virtually all of my plans in this fashion. I’d wager that we all have. And many times, these plans take hundreds—maybe thousands—of hours to complete. How much of that time is spent defining the problem? There’s no firm measure but I am certain that we spend at least half our time in this manner. We develop the data inventories, report the figures, extrapolate future conditions, debate the problems and sometimes even debate the literal definition for each problem. If we’re lucky, all this work leads to consensus on the problems. If we’re extraordinarily fortunate, everyone will understand them, too.

But let’s think about the opportunity cost that comes with this approach. Every minute of thought given to problems equals one minute of thought *not* given to solutions.

So we have an inverse relationship between problems and solutions. And since people’s focus and energy are limited, the more we spend on problems, the less we spend on solutions, which leaves us even less to spend on implementation.

Psychologists have been aware of this dynamic for decades. In their profession, conventional talk therapy involves long, time-consuming explorations of a patient’s problems—the origins of their troubles, the nuances of their frustrations. Often times, their sessions are nothing more than quiet observance as patients vent their frustrations. It can be cathartic but it isn’t (typically) very helpful. Substantive, actionable solutions don’t arise quickly in this approach. By the time solutions are discovered, the patient has invested too much energy (and money) to exercise the necessary will to change.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

From this dilemma, a new source of briefer, more focused approaches came about in the 1950s, including a method known as solutions-based therapy. From Wikipedia: The [solution-based therapy] approach focuses on the past only in order to activate conversations about resources and past successes. Predominantly, it purposefully activates and focuses conversations on the present and future.

This approach to therapy does not delve into the past very much; it does not focus on problems. In fact, the central application involves a technique whereby the patient imagines the problems don’t even exist! This technique is known as “The Miracle Question”. Here is an example of the question, again from Wikipedia:

The counselor may ask,

"If you woke up tomorrow, and a miracle happened so that you no longer easily lost your temper, what would you see differently? What would the first signs be that the miracle occurred?"

The client, in this example, (a child) may respond by saying,

"I would not get upset when somebody calls me names."

As you see, there is no real talk about the problem—or even the miracle that resolved the problem. Instead, there is a visualization of success and then the search for signs that the success has happened. Often times, the exercise gives the patient the solution right away. In our example, the sign of success is also the solution: the client shouldn’t get upset when someone calls them names. This exercise shows the patient, through their own personal discovery, that they are capable of solving the problem. In just two minutes. Leaving lots of time and energy to apply it.

Here’s how this technique can work in our profession:

Imagine you’re doing a plan to revitalize the downtown. Without a single discussion of problems or data or anything else, start by asking your client and/or committee the miracle question:

“If you woke up tomorrow and a miracle happened so that the downtown was instantly revitalized, what would be different? What would be the first clue that the miracle occurred?”

If the client says something tangible like, “The buildings would be rehabilitated”, then you should start designing a modest building rehabilitation program.

If the client says something more enigmatic like, “The streets are full of people”, then prod a little further and ask: “What has placed the people on the streets?” If they say sidewalks, you should start designing a (modest) capital improvement project. 

See how it works? With this approach, we can bypass all the problem definitions and data inventories and go directly to the thing that matters most of all: creating positive change. Instead of spending half our time (or more) delving into problems, we spend all our time developing a better future. The planning effort gains real focus, occupies less time, and simply becomes more fun.

In conclusion, here is a fundamental truth: knowledge of a problem does not create change. Consider the smoking doctor. There are doctors—board-certified medical doctors—who smoke. If anyone knows the dangers of smoking, it is this select group of people. Yet some of them continue to smoke.

Only knowledge of a solution, combined with the will to carry it out, can make change possible. And the sooner you discover the solution, the more likely you are to pursue it—whether it is for yourself or your city. So next time you start a planning effort, consider using the—shall we say—THE SOLUTIONS-BASED PLANNING MODEL instead of that crusty old rational model. Imagine a miracle occurs where that thing gets tossed aside. You can already picture a better future.  

Norman Wright, AICP, is the Director of Development Services for Columbia, Tennessee


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