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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Why the hardest problems are left unsolved

If you ask your team to work on an unsolved, unstructured problem—to risk being no cause and risk seeing no effect—maybe the emails will pile up. But so will the lightbulbs.

Why the hardest problems are left unsolved
[Who is Danny/AdobeStock]

Every morning, I have a choice to answer 30 emails or work on a problem that is unstructured, time-consuming, and frustrating.

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If I answer those 30 emails, I will have completed a task. The recipients might do something useful with my response, and we’ll all feel productive. Or, I can face an uncooperative problem that won’t be solved in hours, weeks, or even months. Meanwhile, the email stack will grow from 30 to 60 to 90.

More often than I’d like to admit, I choose the emails. Am I undisciplined? Am I not someone who can do the hardest thing on my task list first?

I think we all have this dialogue with ourselves, and it’s not really about character. It’s about cause and effect. It’s about what I call “proximate thinking,” which, for now, I’ll define as a tendency to focus on defined problems with known solutions. Proximate thinking is a threat to innovation. Once you see proximate thinking in yourself and others, you can’t unsee it.

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CAUSE AND EFFECT

The term proximate thinking deserves some unpacking. We all have tasks and projects. Some are big and complex, while others are small and simple. Some have defined paths forward, and others require us to reason for ourselves. Some projects take minutes, but others might take months of sustained effort and focus. Sometimes, the solution is right in front of us, and all we need to do is execute it. Other times, we don’t even know what the problem is, let alone the solution.

In managing myself and others for over 10 years, I’ve noticed that we almost always choose to work on the thing that is defined, the thing that doesn’t need sign-off (and avoids conflict), the thing that will take less time, the thing with the known solution—the stack of 30 emails.

These easier paths are “proximate” solutions. I borrow this from a legal concept called “proximate cause.” Liability, in law, can only attach when the damage is “proximately” caused by the act in question. In a car accident, a proximate cause could be the driver reading text messages, which led to the pedestrian’s broken arm. Proximate cause as a legal concept is powerful because it connotes a common-sense sequence of events through which a juror can see how one thing leads to another.

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Proximate cause communicates agency. Proximate solutions fulfill our desire to produce. We want to see the results of our work. However, that desire is often antithetical to innovation—and absent from the narratives we like to tell ourselves about it.

THE CULT OF SUFFERING

Proximate thinking is the norm, not the exception. A 2021 survey by Asana found that employees spend 60% of their time on “work about work”: emails, information finding, meetings, coordination, and other activities that are proximate solutions to mini-problems. Yet proximate thinking is cleansed from the legends of entrepreneurship we tell in business magazines and podcasts.

Instead, founders style themselves as bold adventurers willing to risk it all (but not actually) and fail again and again (and return to their cushy job at Google if cash runs out). We fetishize suffering. Tech media celebrates the Thomas Edison type who succeeds at making a lightbulb only after 1,000 alleged attempts. It’s as if the successful founder spends all day every day doing the impossible, paying no regard to inane problems with proximate solutions.

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If only that were true. At startups—facing pressure to grow fast and wow investors—we often focus on problems we already know how to solve. In the name of efficiency, “small wins,” and hitting KPIs, we prioritize the appearance of progress over the invention of new knowledge and technology. Emails come before light bulbs. We suffer not from doing hard things, but by stacking up too many easy things.

Why? We need to seem productive. It’s hard to tell your supervisor (or board), “I haven’t defined the problem, and I haven’t started working on the solution, but I eliminated a lot of ideas that would have never worked. And now I’m going home.”

“Meaning you…did lots of thinking…and produced nothing that I, your manager, can show my superiors in a slide deck, as proof of my competent management?”

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That’s right: we preach suffering but demand instant gratification. By picking a defined solution with a known problem, everyone can put on a Broadway-caliber performance of productivity (which, by the way, you could never get away with in skilled trades like plumbing or carpentry). We can produce knowledge like a commodity with a market value rather than the complex, hard-to-evaluate product it really is. And we feel like we’re winning—until we’re DVD rental stores, clinging to proximate thinking, convinced that streaming will never work.

SEE IT TO FIGHT IT

Every day, we have a choice about how to spend our time. If we spend it on structured problems with clear cause and effect, we will be rewarded for it in the short-term. To do anything innovative, though, we must work on unstructured, undefined, uncooperative problems.

The point is that the incentives of knowledge-work can conflict with innovation. Proximate thinking has great excuses for why you should do the easier task. Proximate thinking asserts—often illogically—that something unimportant has to get done before something more important.

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If you’re a leader, consider how you encourage or discourage proximate thinking. If, for instance, you expect your team to deliver something new and complete every two weeks, what will you get? Proximate solutions. If you ask your team to work on an unsolved, unstructured problem—to risk being no cause and risk seeing no effect—maybe the emails will pile up. But so will the lightbulbs.


Ryan Anderson is the founder & CEO of Filevine, a project management, collaboration and legal case management tool for lawyers. 

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