Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

12 January 2010

Is it all problem-solving?

Clark @ 7:03 AM

I’ve been arguing for a while that we need to take a broader picture of learning, that the responsibility of learning units in the organization should be ensuring adequate infrastructure, skills, and culture for innovation, creativity, design, research, collaboration, etc, not just formal learning. As I look at those different components, however, I wonder if there’s an overarching, integrating viewpoint.

When people go looking for information, or colleagues, they have a problem to solve. It may be a known one with an effective solution, or it may be new. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new service to create, a new product to design, a customer service problem, an existing bug, or what. It’s all really a situation where we need an answer and we don’t have one.

We’ll have some constraints, some information, but we’re going to have to research, hypothesize, experiment, etc. If it’s rote, we ought to have it automated, or we ought to have the solution in a performance support manner. Yes, there are times training is part of the solution. But this very much means that first, all our formal solutions (courses, job aids, etc) should be organized around problem-solving (which is another way of saying that we need the objectives to be organized around doing).

Once we go beyond that, it seems to me that there’s a plausible case to be made that all our informal learning also needs to be organized from a problem-solving perspective. What does that mean?

One of the things I know about problem-solving is that our thought processes are susceptible to certain traps that are an outcome of our cognitive architecture. Functional fixedness and set-effects are just two of the traps. Various techniques have evolved to overcome these, including problem re-representation, systematicity around brain-storming, support for thinking laterally, and more.

Should we be baking this into the infrastructure? We can’t neglect skills. Assuming that individuals are effective problem-solvers is a mistake. The benefits of instruction in problem-solving skills have been demonstrated. Are we teaching folks how to find and use data, how to design useful experiments and test solutions? Do folks know what sort of resources would be useful? Do they know how to ask for help, manage a problem-solving process, and deal with organizational issues as well as conceptual ones?

Finally, if you don’t have a culture that supports problem-solving, it’s unlikely to happen. You need an environment that tolerates experimentation (and associated failure), that support sharing and reflection, that rewards diverse participation and individual initiative, you’re not going to get the type of pro-active solutions you want.

This is still embryonic, but I’m inclined to believe that there are some benefits from pushing this approach a bit. What say you?


  1. I think you are right about problem-solving being an effective unifying principle for learning, and for businesses in general. In fact, the most effective leaders and businesses I’ve encountered tend to approach most activities, from meetings, to projects, to training, from the perspective of problem-solving. It is a mentality that goes hand in hand with a keen awareness of the big picture goals and needs of the group (business, school, team). The promise of the problem-solving approach is, as you note, limited by the culture’s (business or otherwise) response to occasional failure as well as the culture’s tendency, or lack thereof, to reward generosity and contributions to the group as a whole.

    IMHO, problem-solving is an ideal framework for many organizations to maximize their success in all areas, not only in the area of learning. But without the right culture and leadership… Well, it is another potentially dynamic model either falls flat or is mandated, formalized and structured into a lifeless checklist that is only a pale ghost of the promise of the approach.

    Now, if someone could just sort out how you promote the cultural shift that allows the promise of problem-solving to shine through….

    Comment by Janet Effron — 12 January 2010 @ 7:40 AM

  2. “…if you don’t have a culture that supports problem-solving, it’s unlikely to happen.” I think you identified the key ingredient as to the challenges of pushing this approach.

    If you ask any CEO the question,”Do you support problem-solving, sharing and reflection, reward diverse participation, and encourage individual initiative?”, you’re going to get the same answer every time…”Why, of course!”

    If you ask the folks in the trenches, you’re likely to get the complete opposite answer (not saying all are like this, but where most of us are in the middle somewhere). I think all of us in the learning industry would love to work in an environment in such a way as to experiment more freely. Not that we can’t or aren’t allowed, rather we simply do not have the time cycles, or qualified skills on our team (if we even have a team) to pursue such endeavors.

    Me? I’m on board. When do we start?!

    Comment by Kevin — 12 January 2010 @ 1:24 PM

  3. I like the problem solving comparison. This could even be expanded a bit to follow the life cycle of a problem at a high level.

    SOLVE PROBLEM – identify potential causes.

    Once the cause of the problem is identified, a DECISION must be made as to the solution for the problem.

    Once a decision is made, an implementation PLAN must be made in order to implement the solution.

    We don’t always start at the problem solving phases and should identify from the start what we’re trying to accomplish (i.e., solving problem, making decision or implementing a plan).

    Comment by Dennis Callahan — 14 January 2010 @ 3:21 AM

  4. Great feedback.

    Dennis, great extensions, problem solving doesn’t stop with the answer, it needs to be implemented, shared, and followed up.

    Janet, as you suggest, and as Kevin echoes, there’s a cultural imperative to make such a perspective become part of the solution. I think that when the CxO says “of course we support problem-solving”, you need an audit to provide documentation that you don’t, in fact, have the supportive culture they believe.

    Changing culture is hard, but part of my model for attitude change is making them aware of the true nature of the problem. Once they’re aware, you can show alternatives and let them weigh the tradeoffs. If you’ve done this right, they should see that the alternative is a better situation. The, at least, you have a mandate to make the change, and regular org change kicks in. (They’ll have to truly embrace it, and agree to walk the walk.)

    Of course, you could just put in a social media infrastructure, and then when no one contributes, you have concrete evidence that the culture isn’t supportive!

    Comment by Clark — 14 January 2010 @ 10:22 AM

  5. Clark, I like problem-solving a lot: it will make it easier to get budget and make changes. However, I see learning, even corporate learning, as more. Problem-solving is a subset of getting things done. What one wants to do is not always solving a problem.

    Comment by Jay Cross — 17 January 2010 @ 9:11 PM

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress