I love this question, and I believe starting with it can open a world of possibility around addressing the most pressing issues, big and small, personal and public, work and life that we face each day. Here are some thoughts on how to release its implicit power:
Assume possibility. If we genuinely and openly explore “how,” we have the opportunity to both better understand the problem we are facing and to open the door to new solutions. We have to start from a place of faith and confidence in possibility. In turn, solution thinking done well also asks us to think critically about the rules and norms of the problem, the structure. We must analyze and understand better how we arrived at the present to deepen our understanding of how we might address it, not just incrementally, but substantively in the future.
Focus on strategy. To identify “how” substantively, we need to think strategically. When we try to solve problems by starting with what we should “do” then we miss the opportunity to transform the condition that generated the problem in the first place. We end up doing stuff that just gets us to the next iteration of the same problem. Strategy focuses on systems and structures and relationships that we must invest in in order to implement our transformative “how” more consistently, sustainably, and transformationally.
Align tactics. Clearly, at some point, we must “do” something. We just shouldn’t start there because our tactics are often rooted in the skills and perspectives and practices we are most familiar with, the ways we already “do.” It doesn’t take a big leap of logic to see that those ways aren’t going to be sufficient for transforming our problem. In fact, they may be part of it. While our existing skills, perspectives, and practices may be reinvested in or reorganized for incremental improvements, to transform conditions our tactics have to be rethought and reconsidered to align directly with our strategies. We need to “do” things differently, and to make that happen we will probably also need some new skills, perspectives, and practices in the mix.
Question creatively. Genuine belief in possibility begs us to be more creative. Creativity that can support the vastness of possibility starts with a willingness to question everything. This questioning isn’t about throwing out everything and starting over. In fact, it allows us the opportunity to identify and strengthen the core beliefs, the foundations upon which our work and relationships are built, the things we can’t and won’t change. At the same time, deep, creative questioning does allow us to identify ancillary assumptions about “how we do things” that, in fact, are just a matter of bad habit, culture, or climate issues. They might even live only at the small group or even individual levels of our organization or work but deeply impact our ability to accomplish our goals.
Generate lots of solutions: Similar to our urgent need to “do” something, when we start generating solutions, we often have an urgent need to get to the “right” one as quickly as possible. Getting to the right answer, however, usually requires some combination of multiple creative answers. So, we need to generate a lot of possible answers, and some that even seem impossible, before we start whittling things down. The pressure of generating a volume of ideas (in the next five minutes brainstorm some ideas vs. in the next five minutes come up with 20 ideas) forces us to move our thinking beyond our normal parameters. We force ourselves to come up with outlandish ideas – which may just hold the nugget of wisdom that triggers the ultimate solution. It also just generally gets us out of our cognitive lane and frees our thinking.
Iterate. As we start to focus our creative ideas and narrow them down, we need to stay aware of when and how we start to get wedded to them and start building assumptions around them. As we feel that human need to get to the answer, we can inadvertently make the jump to what we believe it is and derail the creative process. We must remain open and flexible and continue to iterate on ideas rather than just carry them forward. In other words, we have to keep learning. Have we uncovered some new truth that changes our assumptions? Have we identified alternative strategies and tactics and are we staying open to those as they come? What are their implications on our previous strategies or tactics? Basically, we have to remain committed to creatively questioning throughout the process.
Engage diverse voices and ideas. To support the generation of lots of solutions, we should also engage diverse voices and perspectives. Generating a lot of the same kind of ideas from the same perspectives doesn’t get us anywhere. But, when we stop and engage stakeholders, and even non-stakeholders, in the ideation process, we generate more raw material to work with, and often material we never thought about, blinded by our own perspectives.
Develop shared purpose. Even though it is the last word in the question, solving for “how might we” starts with the idea of “we.” It’s the subject. It’s collective. We work with and through others. To solve the problems we need to solve and create the future we want to create, we must share a sense of purpose of what we are trying to accomplish. None of the other parts of this process will work fluidly if our purposes are not aligned. The process of creating is hard enough without facing the constant and unnamable stress and frustration of inadvertently working at cross-purposes. This is perhaps the most critical investment a leader can make.
Share responsibility and accountability. When we are trying to transform our work and/or the world, we must not just share purpose but ownership. “We” works at all levels of our creative process and related attempts at implementing new strategies and tactics. So, we must be intentional over time as we continue to ideate, iterate, and implement any change efforts, so that a sense of the collective remains. We will divvy up specific responsibilities, different people deploy different tactics, but we should continue to share accountability for achieving our strategy, driving toward our shared purpose throughout the creative process.