Do you know what your problem is?
Among some of my university pals, I’m often likened to Chandler from Friends. Not because of my cutting wit but because of a running joke that no-one understands what my job is. To be honest, it took me a while to articulate it myself, and I eventually landed on ‘Problem Solver’.
Unfortunately, that’s not a job that gets advertised very often nor makes much sense to other people. It’s also something that pretty much anyone could say that they do. But solving problems, understanding what’s way beneath the veneer, exploring and scavenging the root causes and creating opportunities for change from this jumble, is a skill and a mindset — and it’s one I believe everyone should have.
What professional services really boils down to.
I’ve spent most of my career in some form of consulting, and mostly in growth, innovation or change environments where organisations need help in working through the challenges of transitioning from one state to another. This has spanned a range of sectors and professions: legal, financial services, law enforcement, healthcare, energy, central government. You’ll notice that most of these involve highly specialised professions — I’ll come back to that.
In some cases, these organisations are looking for expertise and support in doing something that had generally been done before elsewhere — like implementing a new back-office finance system. Here, consultants can bring previous experience of the technology, the planning, the implementation and the change management required — or all of these.
In other cases, organisations are looking for the skills and experience required for ‘greenfield growth’ — doing or building something new such as scaling a consulting business, creating a new product or building a new tech startup. In these situations, there is a need to deliver change by solving problems that are both known and unknown, which is the nature of early-stage and growth ventures.
For both types of engagement, there is typically a blend of skills — tech expertise, sector or function knowledge and management skills like strategy and change. I fall into this last category, although all good consulting professionals should have some skill here, and vice versa for problem solvers, with the other skills.
Specialised professions & what I’m never employed for
My job has never been to bring deep expertise or sector knowledge. By and large, this comes from the client. The point is to work with these specialists to understand their work and translate it. There are obvious challenges and potential sources of friction here: I need to know enough about the environment to have context of the challenges faced, but my strength lies in bringing a fresh and untainted perspective to this environment to figure out how to create change. In other words, I need to avoid telling specialists how to do their job better but also figure how to enable them to do their job better. There’s a fine balance to be struck here, often down to careful communication but more importantly, an attitude of curiosity and honesty — this is how to uncover the right problems.
In all of the professions and sectors I listed above, there is a recurring view: that an outsider can’t understand how the job is done. This is entirely true. If I knew everything about healthcare just from observation, I could call myself a doctor and my mum would finally be happy.
Specialism is not the purpose of a good advisor, consultant, change-maker or problem solver. Their principal purpose is simply this: to look at sectors and professions that they have little or no experience in, turn them into recognisable problems and then interrogate those problems to find solutions or opportunities.
This means translating highly-specialised professions into what can seem like simple or generic tasks or at least ones that can be studied with too much sector knowledge. Here again, is where friction can lie. Imagine spending six years training to be a lawyer, getting very good at it for several more years and then some guy in skinny jeans comes along and tells you he knows how to improve your work (NB: I don’t wear skinny jeans).
Recognisable problems are simply problems that anyone can understand and need no context knowledge. It’s like the process of gathering business needs and translating them into technical requirements. For the problem-solver person, the challenges or opportunities are not limited to a focus on IT and requirements though — it could be about identifying which support services your new startup needs or the best way to approach new clients for business development.
So, for example:
Lawyers — I know nothing about corporate law but I can identify repeatable, generic activities involved in an M&A transaction: discovery & document gathering, financial modelling, contract review, negotiation and so on — and in each of these I can identify problems and opportunities for improvement.
Doctors — I know nothing about medicine but I can identify that a critical part of the patient and clinician’s journey is waiting for test results, receiving them securely and sharing them easily. This can provide the outline for a single or multiple solutions around patient records.
Investment bankers — I know nothing about how to advise clients on their investments and transactions but I can identify the various scenarios in which money is moved cross-border, work with tax professionals to understand the implications of the latest regulations and create solutions for compliance.
These examples are all from real pieces of work I’ve been involved in over the last decade. One thing you might notice is that the problems and potential solutions seem fairly straightforward — and they pretty much are. Legal technology for document review, for example, has been around for decades and electronic patient records began rollout several years ago. In recent years, advanced tech has accelerated the power of the solutions but generally, these are ‘low hanging fruit’ problems in terms of understanding what solutions will help to solve them (implementing them is a different set of problems).
So the role of the problem-solver changes, particularly in the context of innovating. The purpose now becomes to find the next wave of recognisable problems. This means digging deeper into the complexity of specialised professions and taking the widest possible view to solve bigger and bigger problems — and this requires another dimension for the professional advisor.
Harnessing the power of design
If you’ve read this far and generally concur, you might think there’s a case to say that there should be some sort of education pathway or professional qualification for problem-solving. Well, there is: design thinking.
Design thinking has been around since at least the 1960s and has more recently been popularised by renowned organisations like IDEO. The term ‘design’ indicates the nature of the approaches rather than who deploys them — design thinking is a multi-disciplinary approach to solving problems, that brings together a diverse range of people, skills and resources. It is also centred around developing a deep understanding of the people for whom products and services are being developed. A key skill here is empathy, something that might seem jarring in the context of fixing problems for an investment banker, but what it really refers to is understanding the needs and wants of the client beyond the superficial.
The outputs of design thinking are all around you — your phone, search engine, social media, and music streaming provider, not to mention your car, fridge, laptop and possibly even your heating thermostat.
Where design thinking becomes particularly powerful is in solving ‘wicked problems’. This term was coined in the 1970s by two designers and academics, originally referring to social policy and planning problems. Wicked problems tend to involve a high degree of human involvement and are therefore highly variable, unpredictable and have multiple possible solutions. I’d argue that all good professional advisors and consultants have a bias towards solving wicked problems, as the ultimate customer of all products, services, processes and organisations is humans.
It would be remiss to not also mention systems thinking, another mindset that is becoming increasingly relevant and powerful in solving complex problems. One of the defining aspects of systems thinking is understanding the interdependency of the problem you’re working on with the wider context and the effects that tackling it will have.
The argument for Generalists
The pace of change in our world is phenomenal. Truly mind-boggling. I heard someone outline a good thought experiment recently. Imagine being taken in a time machine, 100 years into the future starting in, say, the 16th century. The difference between 1500 and 1600? Probably not that much, you’d adjust pretty quickly. Then you go from 1600 to 1700 — seeing some new things, probably a bit unsettling. Then from 1700 to 1800 — whoa, there’s a lot of new things here, it’s freaking me out. Then from 1800 to 1900 — oh my god, this is too much. Then from 1900 to 2000 — your brain would probably explode on arrival.
In the last 100 years, work began to be transformed by ideas like specialisation which, coupled with industrial innovation, led to things like production lines and machines that were able to replicate human activity at a lower cost and higher output. Initially, this was for work driven by easily replicable physical activities — making steel, milling cotton, transporting people. Then, as technology rapidly improved, automation began replacing people — the bulk of a car could be built or aided by machines and entire factory production lines could be mechanised. Next up was the phase we’re still in now — replacing knowledge work with advanced technology.
Accounting, for instance, was a solid, secure profession 50 years ago. Like most knowledge work, it was based on an asymmetry of knowledge: “I know a lot about this specific area and you don’t, so you need to pay me for my expertise”. Now, that advantage is being eroded. For a small business, the idea of needing a full-time accountant is almost unthinkable, with an array of self-service tech platforms or flexible tech driven services based with low-cost or even free price points.
The same is true for a huge number of knowledge professions, some being entirely replaced, some being disrupted, and some being augmented by advances in technology: lawyers, advertising agencies, personal trainers, surgeons, financial advisors, auditors. The list is extensive. In the US, approximately 25% of all jobs are at risk of being replaced or severely disrupted by automation.
Consider this. A young adult graduating this year would have been born in 1999. At that point, Google was only a year old and the first iPhone was still 8 years away. Social media didn’t exist. Access to world events was still primarily through print newspapers, the radio or TV news. The world has changed beyond recognition in the lifetime of that person about to enter the workplace for the first time.
So who thrives in a world that is changing this fast? People with a multidisciplinary skillset, the ability to see things at a system level and the skill to solve complex problems: generalists. I wrote a short piece on this not long ago, arguing that our current culture and education systems push us towards specialising, which works for a minority but is increasingly less relevant in the world we live in.
Don’t get me wrong, specialists are still essential and valuable in a wide range of settings. If I have a heart attack, I’d like my treatment to come from a deeply qualified heart surgeon rather than a collection of design thinkers standing around a whiteboard, brainstorming how to save my life. But as the boundaries between technology, humans and the natural world become increasingly blurred, and the challenges we face become more complex, it is generalists who will take the lead in resolving those problems. A problem like climate change, one so complex that our minds can barely fathom it, will not be solved through expertise in one field.
I’ll leave you with this thought. A child born today would leave university and enter the workplace in 2041. Have we any clue what the world will look like then? Perhaps one thing we can say is that the skills that will enable a person to flourish are quite different from the ones most valued today — and I’d argue that problem-solving will be one of them.
With that, I’m off to share this article with my uni friends so that they might finally understand what I do.