The simplest problem-solving method we never use

problem-solvingJohn and I are listening to a fascinating book in the car. It’s call Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by two brothers name Chip and Dan Heath. They tell story after story of how big changes took place because of surprisingly simple solutions. We’re not even halfway through the book yet but I already feel like this simple problem-solving method is a major takeaway.

The authors tell a very moving story about malnourished children in Vietnam during the 1990s. A man named Jerry Sternin was tasked with addressing this issue in a six-month time frame by not-too-friendly government officials who weren’t thrilled to have a foreign expert telling them what to do. It seemed impossible since many many experts had already spent hundreds of hours analyzing all the contributing factors and determining root causes and pointing out the systematic problems causing malnourishment, none of which Sternin could influence or change within a six month time-frame.

So Sternin did something else. He started interviewing Vietnamese moms in villages. All the kids were weighed and measured and they discovered that even in the same conditions, some kids in the village were actually not malnourished. Sternin established what moms were normally doing to feed their children and then interviewed the moms of the healthier kids to see what they were doing differently.  The moms of the healthier kids were feeding them four times a day instead of twice (not more food just spread out over four meals) and they were supplementing the rice with tiny shrimp and crab collected from the rice paddies (traditionally not fed to the kids) and mixing in sweet potato greens.

The changes were tiny and easy to replicate.

Sternin used a problem-solving method we don’t use enough: look for what’s already working and then see how we can replicate it. This is also called Positive Deviance.

This “problem-solving” method isn’t looking at the problems at all – it’s looking at the positive “bright spots” as the authors term them. How simple is that? And yet, by nature, we all tend to focus on the negative. We get mired in analyzing all the things that are wrong instead of looking at what’s already right and seeing how that could translate for us. We focus on fixing what’s broken instead of just implementing more of what’s already working.

We do the same thing when we consider our own strengths and weaknesses. Instead of focusing on what we’re already good at and continuing to hone those skills, we often bog down on trying to “fix” or improve all our weaknesses.

So the next time you feel like there’s a huge problem you’re facing, is there a way to turn the question around and say “What is working in this situation and how can I apply that to what isn’t?” It might just work.