In a recent conversation with Thomas we discussed his book and problem solving
What's your problem?
Ideally you will answer in ways that I can quote directly. If you're able to do a video recording asking the questions and answering them as well, that would be ideal but not necessary. Thanks!
Answers below! I can’t do video easily (in a summer house with beach clothes only) so it’ll have to be in writing. I edited some of the questions slightly, FYI.
Why did you decide to write this book and how did you go about it?
Through my work with companies, I came to realize that we have this massive gap in our cognitive toolboxes - namely the ability to frame problems well. We’re great problem solvers, but we’re often terrible at making sure we’re solving the right problems. So I spent several years developing a method for how to get better at it, constantly road-testing it with my clients as we worked on their problems. The impact on them was very clear, so my editor at Harvard was on board immediately when I suggested doing a book on the method.
Who is this book for?
It’s for people who frequently face ‘new’ problems as part of their work, meaning challenges where you can’t just go out and identify best practices, but have to find your own way. In such situations, the very nature of the problem is often unclear - and a key success factor is your ability to frame it correctly. As one early reframing thinker, the philosopher John Dewey, put it: “A problem well put is half solved”.
How can this framework help innovators and intrapreneurs? What about entrepreneurs? How can it help investors?
The use case for entrepreneurs and innovators is pretty clear. Early in the process, how do you find an unmet customer need that’s worth solving? What client problems are our competitors missing or ignoring? Later in the journey, if your product isn’t selling, is that really because your marketing isn’t working? Or is there in fact something about the product that’s not quite right yet? Innovators and entrepreneurs are essentially problem finders as much as they are problem solvers.
Reframing is arguably even more of a crucial tool for investors. Given, say, an hour with an entrepreneur, you can rarely be part of delivering the solution; that’s the entrepreneur’s job. But if you can help the entrepreneur question his or her understanding of a problem, that can add crazy amounts of value in very little time, as it helps them pivot and spend their time (and your money) more wisely. Getting better at reframing allows you to do that more effectively and avoid being trapped in the ‘presented’ problem.
The framework you've outlined in your book seems relevant to just about any situation. Where and when do you find it most helpful?
Reframing is probably most useful when the people you work with have fallen in love with a specific (bad) solution. In such cases, attacking their beloved solution rarely helps. It’s much more productive to bring the discussion back to the problem they are trying to solve, so you can help them challenge their own assumptions. The core idea is to focus on testing their problem, instead of endlessly tweaking their solution. I get into that in Chapter 9 of the book. (Chapters 10-11 share some methods for how to overcome resistance, for when other people don’t recognize the need to reframe the problem).
What are the problems you think innovators and entrepreneurs should focus on right now?
I don’t think we should have a ‘master list’ of problems that everyone should focus on. That becomes limiting and misses the power of a wide search. The world is really one big portfolio of startup projects, and it’s an advantage that the portfolio is broad and diverse. In the medical space, for instance, we evidently want a big group of people working on COVID-19 - but we also want people working on all the other health issues humanity faces, including some we may not yet have realized the importance of. Personally, I’m more interested in people who go off the beaten path to work on really odd problems, or what fellow author Safi Bahcall calls ‘loonshots’.
What are the conversations about problem solving we should all be having right now?
I’d love to see more reframing of some of the social and global problems we’re currently facing. From climate change to economic inequality to social justice, we’re so quick to jump to solutions - “defund the police” - without thinking critically about the nature of the problem. Too often, it feels like people define the solution first - often based on political agendas - and then retrofit the problem to support that solution. I’m wondering how we can get better at diagnosing our problems in a way that’s public, accessible, and apolitical.
What are the problems you're focusing on right now?
One is scaling. My goal is to upgrade the world’s ability to solve problems, so publishing the book is just the first step in a bigger journey. Reframing is essentially a cognitive technology; how do you take that and make it really widely used? It’s similar to the challenge any entrepreneur faces, only my ‘product’ is a new way of thinking.
Another problem I’m working on is how to upgrade our shared mental models in general. If you look at the space I’m in - call it ‘thought leadership’ in lack of a better word - there’s a lot of endlessly regurgitated crap out there, frankly. How do we get better at finding and surfacing the really impactful ideas and concepts? I’m working on a new project to that end.
What books are you reading right now?
I’m a parallel reader; since childhood I’ve been reading maybe 10-15 books at the same time, jumping between them. The books I find most inspiring are typically not related to my own field, so I’ll mention a few of those. One is “The Price of Peace”, Zachary Carter’s brilliant biography of John Maynard Keynes. Another is “The Science of Storytelling” by Will Storr; I’m having a lot of fun comparing his approach to narratives with those of Neil Gaiman and Aaron Sorkin (two of my favorite storytellers). A third book is “Surfaces and Essences” by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, which is a very nerdy deep dive into how metaphors and mental categories shape our cognitive processes. And I read a lot of science fiction, too, along with the occasional fantasy book; a recent page-turner is “The Traitor Baru Cormorant” by Seth Dickinson. Overall, I’ve really been into biographies lately; they serve as a reminder that, with luck and effort, we can make our lives sublime (to paraphrase Longfellow’s famous lines).
Please complete this sentence (rap it if you like): I got 99 problems, but a _______ ain't one.
A lack of reading material, evidently.