Got a problem? Focus on the problem or the solution?

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By Professor Barry Drust

Completing any research project is not a smooth predictable process. An unexpected turn of events will often pose challenges that were never considered. How these events are perceived, thought about and ultimately acted upon are obviously key to the project outcome. These are also key to the learning opportunities that such events provide for everyone involved. They therefore seem like important situations to influence if an individual’s learning journey is going to be effective. 

It is easy when things go wrong to label it as problematic and to develop a whole range of negative feelings around the event.  This can lead to high levels of personal stress and anxiety. While this initial reaction may be understandable the length that these thoughts and feelings can dominate the view of the situation is interesting to think about. For some people these negative perceptions can stay around for long periods. This may not just be a result of an individual’s personal view of the world but also a function of the prevailing thinking within the organisation they are located in or the views of those close to them. 

One of the best things about my job is the many and varied groups of people that I get to speak to in my daily activities. While chatting to a doctoral student the other day the negativity and personal/organisational challenge that arises when people become focussed on the problem came up. We were contrasting the difference in these situations when the person or people included in these issues adopt an approach that is focussed on the solution and not the problem. We agreed that this change in perspective can create a very different feeling around the issue and as a result can change both the process that is operationalised and the outcome that occurs.  

As often happens with my thinking a quick dip into the available research literature uncovers a fair amount of evidence for what I thought was an original idea. For example, research related to solution-based therapy/coaching suggests that when there is a focus on assisting individuals to define an ideal future position, and to construct a pathway in both thinking and action that assists them getting to this place they began to shift their focus away from the problem, and towards finding and implementing a solution. This would seem to suggest that when the task of solving problems is approached by seeking to move towards what is wanted instead of trying to move away from an unwanted problem there is more likelihood of a positive outcome both for the individuals thinking and the problem at hand.  

Helping students reframe their thinking about their problems when completing research projects could therefore be an important thing to consider when discussing both the progress of their projects as well as their more general approach to learning. In a complex world easy solutions and clear answers are not always possible but an over-riding willingness to try and solve issues rather than exhibiting “frozen” thinking and negative attitudes about the problem at hand may be an important decision we can make.

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