The usual question when faced with a conflict is, “How can we resolve it?” But what if there’s a better question to ask — and one that might even help us be more creative with our solutions?
A group of students at the Art Institute of Chicago approached two large tables holding 27 random objects. They’d been asked to select some objects and draw a still life. Some examined just a few items, selected ones that interested them, and got right down to drawing.
Others handled more of the objects, turning them over many times before selecting the ones that interested them. They rearranged their chosen objects several times and took longer to complete the assigned still life.
Two University of Chicago social scientists were watching. Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of the renowned book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience) then asked a panel of art experts to evaluate the resulting works without telling them the source of the drawings or anything about the study they were conducting.
The results were intriguing. The art experts judged the second group’s work as far more creative than the first group’s work. What’s more, in follow-ups about 5 years and 18 years after the study, those who’d taken the second approach were more likely to remain artists and have had success in the art world.
What differentiated the first group from the second? Csikszentmihalyi characterized the first group of students as problem solvers who were asking themselves, “How can I produce a good drawing?” He characterized the second group as problem finders who were asking themselves, “What good drawing can I produce?” Said Getzels, “The quality of the problem that is found is a forerunner of the quality of the solution that is attained.”
In conflict, it seems that the obvious question is, “How can we resolve this?” But the better question may just be, “What good problem can we find?” The difference seems subtle, even elusive, but Csikszentmihalyi’s and Getzels’ research suggests it’s also profound — and therefore worth teasing out.
“How can we resolve this?” focuses us on the end result — it encourages us, like the first group of art students, to pick a few options and get to resolution.
“What good problem can we find?” focuses us first on the experience and process of finding the meaningful joint problem before we attempt to design a lasting solution. It encourages us, like the second group of students, to turn over the problem many times, looking for the parts that interest us, rearranging it again and again so we can examine it from many angles. It takes longer, but it turns out to be more effective over the long run.
Great conflict resolution starts with great problem finding.
[HT to Dan Pink’s book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others for the Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi story.]