The thorny case of the solutionising colleague

Detective Socrates shares his method for digging out underlying problems

"We know designers should be solving problems. But my colleagues still keep coming to me with their solutions – even though I've asked them to give me problems instead. How can I get them to stop giving me solutions?"

Someone asked this in a conference Q&A session and my heart burst out of my chest and bounced right over to that poor, frazzled designer.

More on his question later, but first let’s look at problems and solutions.

If you work in design, copy, product, or any "making" type role — or even as a CEO — you might recognise feeling one or more of these kinds of thing:

  1. Gah! Why does this idiot client keep asking me to make the logo bigger, add sparkly effects, and make the text blink?!

  2. Hundreds of users asked for this tagging and folders feature and we spent months building it. It was our most requested feature. So why is nobody using it?!

  3. Loads of prospects said they wanted a product exactly like this. But sales are flatter than a pancake in a hotel trouser press. What gives?

In each case, the client or the customer has solutionised. They haven't told us the problem they’re trying to solve – they've told us a specific solution that they believe will be the magic remedy to their woes. Unfortunately — for any situation that’s even mildly complex — that solution is almost always wrong.

  1. Few clients really want a huge, blinking, sparkly logo. They’re offering their best solution to the problem that they don’t feel good about the design right now … but they don’t know how to fix it or how to express their disappointment. (See also “I’ll know it when I see it” and “it’s too long, make it shorter”.)

  2. Your users never really wanted a tagging and folder structure. They just wanted to be able to find their stuff in your system more easily. They’re trying to be helpful by sharing a solution they’ve seen done elsewhere. (Yes, even though they’ve probably also seen that it’s not usually an effective solution.)

  3. And no, nobody ever wants the product they told you to build. People are terrible predictors of their own future buying behaviour. What’s even worse, if they can imagine a product well enough to tell you all about it, it's almost never going to be surprisingly good enough to make them really want it. This won’t stop them from offering you their solution.

This is probably ringing all sorts of bells for you. People solutionise.

So how do we get people to stop giving us solutions? A 5-step desolutionising framework.

We’ll start by looking back at our designer friend’s question and dig out the underlying problem he’s trying to tackle. The underlying problem is something like this:

“When my colleague gives me a solution, I tend to get stuck on that solution too. I either waste energy arguing about why it won’t work, or waste energy doing work on that solution … which then doesn’t solve the real problem (and often creates even more problems).”

Here are the 5 steps I recommend:

1) Notice when you’ve got a solutioniser on your hands

Now you know what signals you’re looking for, keep an eye out. Like a problem-solution version of that kid from Sixth Sense, you’ll see solutionisers everywhere, walking around like regular people.

In case you need more clues, there’s one dead giveaway of solutionising. A four letter word that we all use every day: JUST.

When you hear something like, "we just need to do <solution>" or "can’t you just <solution>?" then keep your wits about you – you’re deep in solutionising territory.

2) Go with the flow

It’s horribly easy to waste time arguing about solutions, so stop doing it.

Instead, breathe. Accept that you can't stop someone from giving you their solution. Even if you could, they probably need to get it off their chest before they can discuss anything else, so you might as well let them.

Listen to their idea. Pay attention. Maybe take notes.

3) Affirm that you've heard their idea

Repeat their idea back to them.

And — if you can — tell them something honestly positive about the idea. Even if it's a stupid idea, at least you could say it's interesting? Creative? Perhaps it's even daring or courageous.

When they feel you’ve heard their idea, you've done some magic. You’ve allowed their brain to start to relax its grip on the idea. You’ve opened up some space for thinking.

4) Be Detective Socrates

Now you get to play detective, asking questions and looking for clues to deduce what problem it was that led their brain to jump to this solution. Your questioning can also be Socratic, prodding them to start to open up and consider alternative possibilities.

Here are a few angles I've found helpful:

  • What problem are you trying to solve with this idea?
    The direct approach, to be followed by …

  • What matters about that?
    Why is the problem so bad? What makes it worth solving?

  • What will <solution> enable you to do differently?
    Here you’re digging for the result they want or the problem they’re trying to solve. (This is a multi-purpose power-tool of a question and you need it in your toolbox.)

  • In 6 months' time, if <solution> works out as you expect, what will be different in the world?
    Again, you’re digging for their desired result. Sometimes this one question is enough to stop terrible ideas in their tracks.

  • What other ideas did you discard before you chose <solution>?
    Here you’re starting to open up possibilities. If they didn’t consider alternatives, this starts the process. And if they’ve discarded a bunch of ideas already, you have more great clues to work with.

You might also try the "five whys" technique, but I've found that asking people a direct "why" can put them on the defensive. And when you get to 3 or 4 whys in a row, you start to sound like a toddler. Jo Wiebe suggests using the phrase “… so that what?” instead. (NB. take care, as “five whys” is too simplistic for complex problems.)

5) Use Labelling

Once you’ve started to figure out the underlying problem, try labelling it. This simply means you paraphrase what you think the problem is right back to your solutioniser.

Let’s see how that could look for the solutionising we saw above:

  1. It sounds like the design isn’t quite working for you yet, and you’re worried your logo is getting a bit lost?

  2. It sounds like you’re having to spend a lot of time hunting for your stuff in the system, and the way things are arranged now isn’t a great fit for how you work?

  3. It sounds like you want a way to get <result> without <some annoying faff>?

Unless you’re quite lucky, you’ll need to do this a few times to uncover the real problem. But by labelling, you make it easy for the other person to give you more information and more clues.

  1. Mmmm it’s not quite that the logo is getting lost. It’s more …

  2. Yes but it’s not really about the amount of time we spend hunting for stuff. It’s more about …

  3. Kind of, but you know, I actually don’t mind some of that faff. What really gets my goat is …

If the questions in step 4 were a shovel, labelling is more like an archaeologist’s fine brush, and you’re dusting away the last grains of soil to uncover the treasure.

You know you’ve hit gold when they say, “that’s right!”


Armed with these 5 steps, you’re ready to desolutionise.

To wrap things up in some very meta wrapping paper: have you noticed how the designer that kicked this off was himself solutionising?

He was fixated on what he thought the solution ought to be. He was so fixated on stopping other people from bringing him problems that he hadn’t stepped back to bring himself his own problem.

That’s how hard it is to stop solutionising.

Humans love to jump to obvious solutions. It's a quirk of our mammalian problem-solving brains. Probably because, for most of history, most problems we faced were pretty simple. Smash nut with rock. Cook meat on fire. Run away from angry bear. We evolved to jump to the simplest, lowest-energy idea and just get on with it.

A lot of the time that’s good. A lot of the time the simple solution works just fine. You don’t need to stop and consider what problem you’re really trying to solve when someone asks you to pass the salt or turn the lights on, or when you stumble upon a gaggle of angry bears.

But the meaty, complex problems we tend to tangle with at work often need us to pull out our digging tools and not just stop at solutionising.

So go forth and notice, listen, affirm, question and label, Detective Socrates.

[Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash]