Big Problems vs. Big Ideas: A Showdown

05 Sep

At my company, we have a saying we’re a little obsessed with. “Problems are a good thing.”

It’s been a cultural slogan born around an attitude we have that problems are not bad – they are not something to be swept under the rug. In fact, in order to solve a problem, you first have to be willing to see it. Only then can you do something about it.

This line of thinking (and acting) has purveyed our company culture for years. Problems have, in a sense, earned a place of grandeur, and towered over a mighty kingdom.

Small problems, medium problems, bite-sized problems. Global problems, national problems, local problems. Any problem will do. If it’s a big problem, even better – more reason to get rambunctious, rip an A3 out of the desk drawer (or Dropbox folder), and get to work. You have considerable work ahead of you! Prepare to spend the coming weeks (or months) conducting an elaborate needs analysis, articulating a jargon-laden problem statement, and implementing a sizable series of countermeasures.

Sounds sexy, doesn’t it?

I can assure you, it’s not.

Let me relate it a bit more clearly. Picture this:

You’re back in your high school days, and you’ve just come home from a long day of classes and pulled out your geometry homework. Staring you in the face is a the most complicated proof you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s just a simple math problem, right?

There it is again…that word “problem.”

You sit down at your cluttered desk and get to work, referencing your textbook, and the lesson notes from your class earlier in the day. You may even phone a friend for help.

You give it a real, concerted effort, but you just can’t do it. You puzzle through the first lines, but then you get stuck. Problem 3/4 solved.

How do you feel?

Thought so. I’m guessing your response summoned words such as frustrated, drained, annoyed, confused, and irritated.

Welcome to the problem-focused life.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Picture this instead:

After months of careful planning and scheming, dozens of evenings spent at your cluttered desk after work making arrangements, you surprise your family with a gift: you’re all headed for Disney World the next morning.

You wake up, descend upon the Magic Kingdom with reverence, and in a frenzy of excitement, declare your intentions to hit to every single major attraction in the park in one single day. It’s an intoxicating idea, right?

An entire day filled with laughter, slightly questionable behavior, and shameless determination ensues.

But despite all the fun, despite giving it a real, concerted effort, you just can’t do it. You beef-up a half-truth about Aunt Nessie’s knee problem to score a wheel chair and reach the front of the lines at the major rides, but it’s still not enough. Your big idea is only 3/4 achieved.

How do you feel?

Thought so. “Like an awesome, overly-zealous rock star who had the time of their life” was my answer, too.

Welcome to the idea-focused life.

If problems are a good thing, ideas are an even better thing.

Big ideas are intoxicating. They’re energizing. They light us up, they set our world on fire. They inspire creativity, risk taking, and bold thinking. They pull us forward into a beautiful, imagined future that makes us want to take action.

And best of all, big ideas help us to solve our big problems along the way.

A big idea about hitting all the rides in one day has dozens of challenges and problems riddled within it. But it offers a much sexier container for our problems to live in than an A3. Instead of plaguing our thoughts with the burden of populating a template, it unleashed our imagination and gave us permission to dream.

I’ve experienced the magic of a big idea. I’ve felt it fill me up with inspiration, motivation, and drive.

I’ve also experienced the drain of a big problem, and felt it fill me up with anxiety, worry, and dread.

So I’m proposing a showdown, an adios to Big Problems and a welcoming of his successor, Big Ideas.

Feeling skeptical about letting go of your problem-focused ways? Don’t take my word for it, try the new leader on for size. The below activity will help you get there.


Get crackin’, master imaginer; the big ideas are calling.


The below can be activity can be completed in as quickly as ten minutes, or in as much as several hours. Use it as you wish.

Do it with a team or with colleagues if you have them. Do it with a spouse or a household if you have one. Do it alone if that feels appropriate. Answer these questions to start the dreaming:

  • What things annoy you to no end? What would make them go away?
  • What would you do in your job, in your household, with that client, if you ruled the world?
  • What would you work on if you had a guaranteed “get out of jail free” card with anyone you might piss off in the process?

Write down everything that comes to mind. The bigger the better. If you makes you gasp, you win the prize. If it seems impossible, you win the grand prize. No censoring – put all the ideas down.

Which ones get your juices going? Which ones have you already thinking in fifty more directions, about all the really cool implications it would have and all the related, exciting things it makes you think about?

Hone in on that one.

Then ask yourself:

  • What are some of the problems you would have to overcome to make that happen? Big ones? Little ones?
  • Which ones can you control? Influence? Not control?

These are likely problems you’ve already thought about a million times. But now, POW! They have a sexy container. Where there once were nagging little voices floating around in the abyss of your overworked brain, now there is prioritization and a clear plan of action emerging, fueled by the fire of a compelling vision: a big idea.


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Posted by on September 5, 2013 in Uncategorized


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