Posted: 01 Oct. 2020 5 min. read

To deepen understanding, live with the problem

(This is the fourth post in the Breakthrough Manifesto series, an exploration of Business Chemistry and how to tackle solving really tough problems. If you missed the introduction, read it here.)

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”―Arnold H. Glasgow

The fourth principle of the Deloitte Greenhouse Breakthrough Manifesto is live with the problem, by which we mean to invest time in understanding a problem deeply before attempting to solve it. In other words, don’t rush to a solution.

I have a favorite story that illustrates the importance of this principle. It's about a project team who was enrolled in a course called “Design for extreme affordability” at Stanford University's Design School. Their task was to create a low-cost infant incubator to be used in the developing world. As part of the empathize stage of their project, a team member visited a hospital in Nepal and noticed that incubators stood empty, yet statistics showed that premature babies in that area often died without treatment. The team member’s inquiries revealed that many families lived too far from the hospital to make the trip in time. In other words, reducing the cost of incubators located in hospitals wasn't really the point—they likely still wouldn't save more lives.

The team realized they needed to reframe their question and define the problem differently. They needed a solution that could warm a premature infant inside the home, far away from the hospital. Ultimately, the team developed the Embrace Infant Warmer, a tiny sleeping bag containing a pouch filled with a heat-retaining substance that could keep a baby warm for hours. It cost 99% less than a typical hospital incubator and could be used at home, where it was most needed. (Read more about this team's journey.)

Without their investment in understanding the problem deeply, the team wouldn't have come up with this creative and effective solution that now saves the lives of babies all over the world. Indeed, they would have been solving the wrong problem! And yet, we often rush to solve problems before we fully understand them. Why? Well, for one thing, the pace of change in the world today puts constant pressure on organizations, leaders, and teams to move faster. 

And many of us also have an internal pressure that drives us to move things forward quickly. One study we conducted with more than 13,000 professionals found that a feeling of accomplishment is the top career priority across Business Chemistry types.1 And accomplishment is a feeling we likely associate more with solving a problem than with understanding it. Moreover, this tendency may be even stronger when we're under stress. In another study we conducted with over 17,000 professionals, we found that the most common strategy for coping with stress is jumping in and taking action.

If you'd like to encourage your team to live with the problem, what might you do? Well ... that depends on the Business Chemistry types of your team members.

Let's start with Guardians. Now, not only do I love the Embrace story, but as a Guardian myself, live with the problem is one of my favorite Breakthrough Manifesto principles. Why? Because it’s quite natural for a Guardian to say, "Wait up, hold on a minute, let’s take our time." But seriously, I'm not the only Guardian who likes this one; when we asked 9,000 professionals whether they invest time in understanding a problem deeply before attempting to solve it, Guardians were the most likely to say they do. And as I mentioned in the introduction of this series, Guardians are the most likely type to talk about gathering information and facts about the problem before trying to solve it.

So Guardians have got this, and getting them to adopt this principle is not likely to be difficult. Where the challenge with Guardians might lie is in getting them to move beyond the problem when it's time to do so. They may need a nudge to move on from information-gathering to solution generation, because the former can start to feel quite comfortable.

You may be surprised to see that Drivers are almost as likely as Guardians to say they invest time in the problem, given that they're known for a bias toward action. But it seems Drivers are embracing the old adage “Go slow ... to go fast.” Indeed, I also mentioned in that introductory post that Drivers were more likely than the other types to talk about conducting research, and also about breaking a problem down into smaller components and ensuring it's completely understood.

So, generally speaking, Drivers don't seem to be rushing out of those early phases of problem-solving, but should you encounter a Driver who is reluctant to slow down at this stage, they may be swayed by the argument that understanding the problem more deeply before acting can eventually enable solving it more swiftly, and more effectively, too. And it may pay to emphasize that while you're encouraging people to live with a problem a bit longer, it's not forever. Share a time frame or a particular level of understanding to be reached, as well as when you expect to move on to solutions.

Integrators are less likely to claim they invest time in understanding a problem deeply, but on the other hand, when they talk about problem-solving, they're the most likely type to say they involve others in discussions about the problem (and also potential solutions). So really, the difference may be more a matter of semantics. Integrators might be less prone to talking about a problem in an analytical way, but they're attempting to gain a deeper understand by gathering input from others.

The Embrace team uncovered the root of the problem because one member went to Nepal and talked to people. It's a beautiful thing if you've got some analytical Guardians and/or Drivers doing things their way combined with some Integrators who take a different path to understanding. Encourage and validate these behaviors.

Pioneers tend to be less fond of what they may see as wallowing around in a problem, and often prefer to move on to brainstorming solutions lickety-split. After all, brainstorming is all about coming up with new, creative ideas—the Pioneer's superpower. But it may be possible to slow your Pioneers down by framing the time spent on the problem as a creative endeavor, not just an analytical one. In our study of how people solve tough problems, Pioneers were the most likely type to talk about design thinking (one step of which is focused on determining what the actual problem is). Similarly, along with Drivers, Pioneers' comments often focused on defining the problem and identifying the root cause. Just what are we solving for and how did it come about? So getting Pioneers to stay in this phase a bit longer maybe a simple matter of how you talk about it.

If the creativity angle doesn't work, you might share with your Pioneers this research about procrastination: One study found that when people are told about an upcoming task but asked to do something else first, they're more creative than when they jump right into the task. So knowing that they'll be asked to brainstorm solutions, but waiting to do so until they've actually spent more time on the problem, could ultimately make the potential solutions more creative. And if your Pioneers aren't research types, you could consider telling them the story of Embrace that I shared above, and maybe show them a picture of a really cute baby.

One of the best features of this principle is that once you've convinced people to live with the problem a bit longer, there is no one right way for how they go about understanding it more deeply. Conducting research, gathering and analyzing data, visualizing, whiteboarding, mind-mapping, deep thinking, and talking to others are all legitimate ways to understand a problem, and any of these techniques can be applied alone or with others. And pairing this principle with the first principle of the Breakthrough Manifesto, strip away everything, can make your efforts even more powerful. All-in-all, once you get over the initial hump, this principle could represent a comfort zone for all Business Chemistry types.

Actions in summary for encouraging your team to live with the problem:

  • Urge Guardians to move beyond living with the problem when it's time
  • Help Drivers see why they should "go slow ... to go fast" and tell them when this stage will end
  • Encourage Integrators to do what they do—gain deeper understanding through gathering input
  • Engage Pioneers by framing exploring the problem as a creative rather than purely analytical endeavor

To learn why vulnerability is often a problem-solving game changer, read my next post, which focuses on the fifth Breakthrough Manifesto principle, get real.

And if you simply can't wait to learn more about our Breakthrough Manifesto or how the Deloitte Greenhouse Experience might help your team attain breakthrough results, explore and get in touch here.


1. Sixty-two percent of the 13,885 professionals in our study indicated that a feeling of accomplishment was a top career priority. This was the most common choice among 10 different options across Business Chemistry types [Previously unpublished finding].

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Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Suzanne Vickberg (aka Dr. Suz)

Research Lead | Deloitte LLP

Dr. Suz is a social-personality psychologist and a leading practitioner of Deloitte’s Business Chemistry, which she uses to guide clients as they explore how their work is shaped by the mix of individuals who make up a team. Previously serving in Deloitte’s Talent organization, since 2014 she’s been coaching leaders and teams in creating cultures that enable each member to thrive and make their best contribution. Along with her Deloitte Greenhouse colleague Kim Christfort, Suzanne co-authored the book Business Chemistry: Practical Magic for Crafting Powerful Work Relationships as well as a Harvard Business Review cover feature on the same topic. She also leads the Deloitte Greenhouse research program focused on Business Chemistry and is the primary author of the Business Chemistry blog. An “unapologetic introvert” and Business Chemistry Guardian-Dreamer, you will never-the-less often find her in front of a room, a camera, or a podcast microphone speaking about Business Chemistry. Suzanne is a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business and a doctorate in Social-Personality Psychology from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She has lectured at Rutgers Business School and several colleges in the CUNY system, and before joining Deloitte in 2009, she gained experience in the health care and consulting fields. A mom of two teenagers, she maintains her native Minnesota roots and currently resides in New Jersey, where she volunteers for several local organizations with a focus on hunger relief.