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Getting Unstuck: Defining the Problem

August 18, 2022 by Lauren Gombas

Defining Problems 

If you’ve ever struggled with a seemingly simple problem, you understand the true complexity behind everyday problems. The secret to dealing with these issues lies in determining the type and definition of the problem. Perhaps the problem is unactionable, difficult to approach, or the wrong problem to be addressing entirely. No matter the issue surrounding the problem, investing time into problem-solving, only to feel like you're spinning your wheels, can come at an emotional and financial cost. 

Wicked vs. Gravity Problems

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans provides tips on differentiating between problems to determine action steps and avoid wasted time. In their book, they identified two main problems: wicked problems and gravity problems.

Getting Unstuck: Defining the Problem

A wicked problem is a big problem that is actionable, but doesn't have one perfect solution. For example, let’s say a young person is looking for a satisfying career, but they aren’t sure which direction to pursue. They enjoy baking, love keeping up with the latest trends in real estate, and know they’d prefer to be their own boss. With just these few interests, this person could go into real estate, become a baker, or even start their own business. The solutions and potential action steps are numerous, making the problem of finding a satisfying career more complex to solve. 

Gravity problems, on the other hand, are not actionable. The main consideration with this type of problem is that people don’t always realize the problem is no longer actionable, and therefore end up stuck. An example of this would be someone who wants to become a Navy pilot but cannot pass the physical exam due to issues with their eyesight. Much like trying to remove gravity from the earth, it would be impossible to overcome this “problem.” 

Distinguishing Between Problems

A coach can help us understand which category our challenges fall within. With the ultimate goal of helping us determine how to overcome our problems, our coach might start by asking us to define each obstacle in our way with as much detail as possible. With this information, a coach can help us brainstorm and evaluate potential solutions for the feasibility and effort required. The outcome of this conversation will help us determine the category of our problem. If we can come up with lots of solutions that are achievable within our limitations, then we are working with a wicked problem. If the solutions are not reasonable, not likely, or inexistent, we are more likely dealing with a gravity problem. 

Next Steps for Wicked Problems

Once a problem is determined to be “wicked,” a coach will then move toward identifying pathways that align best with a client’s values and ideal timeline. They may ask about the importance of overcoming each challenge, the fears that lie in the way, and how life might be different should the client come to a solution. The challenge with wicked problems and endless solutions is identifying what we truly want out of our lives, and how working toward a particular solution can help us achieve that goal. 

Although a problem (and its solution) may have its appeal, it might not serve us in the long run. In this situation, it's also good to ask what would happen if we chose to pursue something else. What would the cost be of selecting one wicked problem over another? Once we've selected which challenges to take on, a coach may help us by creating a plan with actionable steps. 

Letting Go of Unactionable Problems

Gravity problems can be tricky from a psychological perspective. Sometimes, people have invested so much time into a problem, they feel the need to see it through. Other times, working toward a particular problem can feel like it’s part of someone’s identity. This can make gravity problems - and any problems we choose to no longer pursue - difficult to let go. 

A good coach will detect if referring a client to a psychologist or mental health professional is necessary. If the client is in good mental health standing, but still feels stuck, the coach may point out the silver lining. Letting go does not ask us to change our opinions or feelings about the past but to accept the situation for what it is and move forward. We must acknowledge the positive and negative emotions we may feel. 

The trick to getting unstuck is knowing the type of problem you’re facing. Once you’ve identified the type of problem, you’re now free to pursue the challenges most meaningful - and actionable - to you. Facing gravity problems can feel defeating and frustrating, but with a good coach and plenty of self-discovery, you may just find that you’re finally on a path toward achieving meaningful and fulfilling goals. 

In the comments below, we'd love to hear about how you've worked with a coach to tackle wicked problems head-on! 

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