Why Problem-Solving Doesn’t Solve Problems (Part 2)

Old building in background of modern sculpture

This is Part 2 of this post. If you have not read Part 1, you will find that here.

Reverse Engineering the Future We DO Want
There is something that DOES work to solve the large, systemic problems our organizations and our communities face today. And that is to aim our efforts out beyond “zero” – out beyond just solving our problems – and to instead solve those problems as one among many steps towards creating something positive.

What works is to aim at the positive, affirming future we want to create, and then reverse engineer that future.

Rather than tethering our efforts to what we do NOT like about today, reverse engineering begins by tethering our plans to the future we DO want. The process then consciously considers the cause-and-effect steps that will work backwards to create the path to that future.

This is not about predicting possible scenarios or aiming at pie-in-the-sky fantasies. It is instead about asking the most realistic of questions: “What has to happen (cause) for X to be the result (effect)? And what has to happen before that can happen? And what before that?”

Along the way, we will link arms with anyone who wants the same thing we want – some who share our organization’s mission, and some who are seemingly far outside its scope. We will consider all the different cause-and-effect steps we can think of. And when something unforeseen intervenes, we will continue to keep walking in the direction of our dream.

There are so many benefits to vision-based planning, the most obvious being that those plans actually work!  However the part that always brings me the greatest joy as a facilitator is that unlike problem-solving plans, vision-based planning starts at the point where everyone agrees.

That is just the opposite of problem-solving plans!  Because those plans begin with today, they start with everything we bring to the table right then – our fears, our baggage, our turf issues, our political postures and positions, our sense of scarcity. With all those personal hurdles to get past before we can even consider finding points of agreement, is it any wonder that planning sessions can become contentious?

However, when we begin the discussion at the future we want to create, we are beginning at the point where we all agree.  We all want vibrant, healthy, resilient, compassionate places to live. Anyone imagining such a future does so with a smile.

From that place of agreement, as we step backwards through all the cause-and-effect preconditions to that future, we continue to agree.  By the time we arrive at a point of disagreement, our expectation is that we will find a win-win path to our common goal.

As I noted in the video, we reverse engineer everything we do in our lives, from getting to the airport on time, to figuring out what time we have to leave the office to get our kids to soccer.

It is time, then, that we in the Community Benefit Sector stop seeking to narrowly fix our organizations and our world. It is time we stop seeking to end poverty and disease (and organizational dysfunction).

It is time we start aiming at creating an equitable, peaceful world.

Once we do that, we will find a thousand inter-related ways to end suffering along the way.

(Part 3 concludes this series with examples of what this approach looks like in action – complete with a video! You can find that here.)

Reverse engineering the future is simple and comprehensive. Learn more in The Pollyanna Principles.

7 thoughts on “Why Problem-Solving Doesn’t Solve Problems (Part 2)”

  1. Hildy,
    Your description of reverse engineering the future brought on a big AHA! moment for me. When I work with grant development teams, I often find that they have a large number solutions to problems at the beginning. They usually begin with the statement “We need to…” or “We need to have…” When I ask why, is usually leads to people becoming nettled at my stupidity.

    Here’s an example:
    Group: “We need is computers.”
    Libba: “Why?”
    Group: “Well, we need them.”
    Libba: “But why?”
    Group: (sighing)”Well, because they will help the children build literacy skills.”
    Libba: “Why do you want to build literacy skills?”
    Group: (getting really irritated now — as if I were questioning why motherhood and apple pie are good things) “Well so that the kids can learn to read, of course!”
    Libba: “You’re teaching them to read, aren’t you?”
    Group: “Of course we are, but the children aren’t learning!”
    Libba: “And why is that?”
    (Usually at this point the group is quite certain that I am clueless, and they begin looking for other things to do.)
    Libba: “For the children to perform as you know they must to be successful in life — because that really lies at the foundation of everything you are trying to do — what must be happening in the school? How would you interact with parents and the community? What would it feel like to be here — how would you describe the culture and the atmosphere?”

    When I interject a question like this, it is amazing how people become very reflective, quiet, and really focus in on what truly matters. As you observed, their replies center on something that isn’t a solution to a problem, but a vision of what could be. From there we begin tracing backwards, identifying the conditions, activities, people and resources that must be in place to make that vision a reality. It is a powerful experience.

    Until I read your article, it didn’t occur to me that I was helping people reverse engineer the future. I thought I was helping them to solve problems, but it really does go way beyond that.

    Thanks, Hildy! Once again you’ve inspired me!!


  2. Great information that I will ruminate and digest for a while.

    Helping people “Reverse Engineer the Future” as you describe it makes lots of sense. The semantics of this process is foreign to so many and takes a real shift in thinking. It’s hard to get my mind wrapped around this because it goes against what I’ve been taught in my years of volunteer and Board training. It’s soft, intangible and like herding jello, and I’ll have to erase a lot of bad tapes to get it in motion.

    Problem solving is common vernacular that most people immediately understand and embrace. The challenge as I see it is to help others understand, embrace and engage in vision-based planning and reverse engineering the future. Focusing on what it takes to make something happen instead of nay saying and delivering the whys it can’t happen is ultimately about an attitude and behaviors. So it’s about awareness to action which is the foundation of social behavior change.

    Perhaps as community benefit organization leaders, we need to start recruiting the “heretics” of problem solving as our board members and committee chairs, those who automatically embrace vision planning and have the right mindset from the start.

  3. Libba and Jeff:
    The thinking behind your comments is precisely why we are working to make all the Institute’s courses less about “what to do” and more about “retraining ourselves to think differently.” As I note throughout the Pollyanna Principles, once we change the way we think about things, the doing becomes easy, natural.

    We all get so used to doing the same thing in the same way and hoping for different results. (Yes, that old definition of insanity…) But when we change the way we see things, things change.

    So yes, viva the heretics! 🙂 They are our only hope for creating more significant change in our communities!

  4. Wow! Thanks for waking me up this morning and helping me to see that Tuesday’s board meeting needs to have a completely different focus, as well as a launch team mtg for another organization I’m co-chairing. It’s going to be really exciting to get people to think about what we want vs. what is wrong.

    • Beth: Thank YOU for your note! It is always more fun to ask, “What is possible? What would success look like in the community?” Reverse engineering that end result is energizing, while climbing out of a hole is just plain exhausting! Please let us know how it goes!!

  5. The whole idea of reverse engineering makes so much sense. Start with the big vision and work back to the first baby step. That process takes the fear out of visionary change and reinforces the successes with each step.

  6. Hi Hildy,

    Vision driven planning creates such changes in planning that people actually start to enjoy it, the planning is a focus rather than the answer, and it actually creates change…Well done for articulating what all nonprofits and strategic planners really need to hear.

    I thought you might enjoy some of the points of view I have about planning that mirror your blog post (and of course The Pollyanna Principles)

    -A question creates your organization, an answer defines your organization

    -Which choice here would create the greater number of future potentials

    -Everyone goes: “What question do I need to ask”, but seldom “What question am I not being?”

    -What would be greater than I could even imagine?

    Keep the great work up, you are an inspiration.
    Steve Bowman


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