Process is important when it comes to problem-solving

It’s time to ask ourselves the following question: What is the best way to accomplish our goals?

Too often “best” is used to describe the most idealistic solution to the problem of the day. As a society, we’ve turned to that problem-solving methodology more and more. The truth is that we need large doses of reality. When we weigh solutions to problems, we can’t exclusively view them through the idealistic lens that our problems all are solvable.

Many of the greatest problem solvers in human history set out to improve something, then grappled with solving a problem outright. It highlights the process attached to any size change. Since it’s graduation season, think about this through the lens of an essay assignment in high school or a research paper in college.

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In both cases, the student has a paper to write. It makes the finished product the “solution.” Before the author can get there, though, he or she must answer fundamental questions. What is the assignment asking me? What will I need to determine in order to write this paper? Then, research happens, if applicable. Finally, much later in the process — after notes have been taken, theories tested, etc. — a paper is written. That paper then goes through the editing process.

The teacher or professor sees the solution: A complete paper, filled with all the necessary information, references, and documents to corroborate whatever points the student made. That is the best way to go about successfully writing a paper. It’s tried and true.

It’s ironic that educators often spend the entirety of their careers preaching about process, perseverance, and adherence to standards and practices to assure a positive outcome for each student. It’s ironic because people, for decades, have been looking at society’s biggest problems and saying, “Well, if we just do this, everything will be fixed!”

I’m not talking about big, national issues, either. Local stakeholders take the same approach to fixing systemic problems in our region. “If we just infuse this much money into the community everything will turn around!” or “If there were more bus stops people wouldn’t have as hard a time getting around!”

Both have been argued for years. Yet neither have resulted in significantly improved circumstances in communities around the Finger Lakes. The first example highlights the flawed idea that injecting millions of dollars into a community without the proper structures and systemic supports in place will result in growing communities, an increased tax base, and general economic viability. It can help, but it doesn’t solve the problem outright. The second is indicative of the idea that by adding bus stops, the region’s most-rural communities will somehow become well-connected, thriving metropolises.

A bus stop won’t solve our transportation problem. But what if the region came together, embraced a public-private solution, and made transportation in the Finger Lakes better for everyone? It doesn’t have to mean more buses, or specific bus stops. What if the solution incorporated the convenience of ride sharing, and regularity of scheduled stops and routes? It’s something that would start small, be manageable (if the interest were present among elected officials) and could scale larger as opportunity and popularity increased.

Perhaps the biggest difference between problem solvers of yesterday and those of today is the lack of interest in long-term planning. People didn’t set out to solve problems. They set out to answer questions, gather information, and make the places they called home better. If there’s something to be critical of those problem solvers of the last 20-30 years, it’s that they have embraced the thirst for instant gratification, instead of appreciating the process to get there.

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