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The Problem Determines the Solution


“Which is more important as a leader, to work alone or to work in groups?” I heard that question asked of a panel of business leaders last week. The panelists all answered something like “in this day and age you have to be able to work in groups. That’s where you get everything done” with some acknowledgment that you had to be able to work solo too sometimes. As soon as the moderator asked the question I thought, “You’re asking about solutions in the abstract. The problem determines the solution.” You can best solve problems that take solo work to solve solo and problems that take group work to solve by group. We’ve all seen solutions that were designed by committee that show input from too many people—examples of group work applied to solo problems.

Debates between people who believe the government shouldn’t be involved in people’s lives and those who believe it should also seem to argue about solutions in the abstract. But some problems are best solved by private companies or individuals and some by government. Few people disagree that building roads, educating youth, and judging court cases are best solved by government. Most conversations I see about whether government should manage some industry like health care debate government versus free enterprise in the abstract, not looking at the problem and seeing what handles it best.

If you want to go to the store to buy something is it better to walk, bike, take the bus, or drive? You can argue the costs and benefits of each mode of transportation as much as you want. What determines which mode best solves the problem is the problem. If the store is down the block, you want to buy some vegetables, and you have two working legs, then you can’t beat walking. If the store is twenty miles away, and you want to buy a ton of bulky building supplies, you probably have to drive.

Asking which is better between solo and group work is like asking which is the best mode of transportation. The problem determines the solution.

I try to instill this perspective in my entrepreneurship classes in getting the students working on new venture ideas to focus on the unmet need and the people they intend to serve over the solution the plan to solve it with. Focusing on the solution too early attaches you to it and you end up trying to solve too many problems with it. The more you focus on the people you want to help and their problems, the more flexible you stay on the solution, allowing you to adapt. The people you want to serve determine what they need, not your solution.

Similarly with leadership, I try to focus people I work with on the people they intend to lead and their motivations. The more you understand people you want to lead, the more effectively you can lead them. They aren’t motivated by your motivations, they are motivated by theirs. Their motivations determine how best to lead them, not yours.

Professor of NYU
Joshua Spodek co-founded and led several ventures. He coaches and teaches leadership, entrepreneurship, sales, and related skills at Columbia Business School and NYU using experiential, project-based learning. He holds five Ivy League degrees, including an Astrophysics PhD and an MBA, and studied under a Nobel Laureate. He helped build an X-ray satellite for the European Space Agency and NASA, and holds six patents. His current passion is developing methods to master business's soft skills, even for geeks like him.