The Problem with Problem Solving

The formula is simple; identify an everyday life “problem” that impacts a large number of people.  Next step, create a product or service that solves the problem and deliver the solution (your product or service) to the people who have the problem.  This is entrepreneurship.  This is the formula that I was taught while starting companies in Silicon Valley, this is the formula being served up in incubators and accelerators across the globe, this is the formula used by social entrepreneurs to solve some of the world’s most pervasive problems.

You may have noticed that this formula is limited.  Yes, the summary above is dramatically simplified, however its limitations have more to do with the substance of the formula and less to do with its simplicity.

The problem with the “problem solution paradigm” is that it lives in a vacuum.  Solutions rarely target the root cause of an issue.  Instead, we live in a world of “fixes” and cover-ups which often augment the problem rather than providing a sustainable solution.  Thus what is a created is a problem-based economy that relies on the perpetuation of problems, so they can be solved by market based solutions.

Within this paradigm, we rarely take into account the entire scope of the problem, and the unlimited number of variables that give life to the problem.  We think small and create the insignificant.

Silicon Valley has been purveyors of this paradigm through the long tail of new startups  and investors.  Facebook and the mobile marketplace have created an ecosystem that supports an astonishing breadth of companies fueled by investors expecting many companies to fail but quick and ample returns from those who succeed (startup expert Steve Blank sums it this phenomenon here).

Lets admit it, small problems are easier to solve and therefore are more likely provide a financial return.  From this vantage point changing the world looks a whole lot less attractive.

If we as social entrepreneurs are committed to creating a better world above all else, it will take a paradigm shift, and a commitment to shifting paradigms.  It will require a departure from problem solving to becoming catalysts for true transformation.

It will take social entrepreneurs that have the vision and audacity to disrupt outdated systems, an unwavering commitment to people and the earth, and the ability to look beyond traditional theories of change.

It will take investors and networks like Omidyar Network with their priming the pump approach to sector driven impact investing.  Like Singularity University that asks their students to solve a problem that will positively impact a billion people.

It will take a new long tail that creates global change from the bottom up, using social enterprise and responsible business practices as its vehicle.

It is time to invest in a new formula.  A formula where positive social transformation is the output.  Think beyond the fixes and cover-ups, and to think about creating sustainable social change.

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