How to Get Out and Stay Out of the Leadership Box

Hereʻs a radical idea; innovation isn’t about solving problems — it’s about staying in the “problem space” long enough to see what’s really going on, and then taking action. According to Bart Barthelemy and Candace Dalmagne-Rouge in HBR,“as you start thinking of a solution, you unconsciously begin shutting off possibilities for getting a deeper understanding of the problem and therefore of finding a truly breakthrough solution.” So how do we stay in that “problem space?” That may be the most difficult challenge for most leaders.

Itʻs hard for everyone.  They reflect on their own process as consultants: “Staying in the problem space, in particular, can be very difficult. Sometimes clients feel frustrated that we resist moving from the problem space to the solution space. Even some of the “divergent” collaborators we bring in for additional insights feel frustrated when they hear we’re less interested in their proposed solutions to a client’s problem than in how they look at the issues involved.” Read more…

And I agree, itʻs absolutely necessary for innovation. It takes discipline, curiosity, and patience to hold back those inner demons that want to feel clever and wise, proposing a quick fix. It also requires a special skill — being able to hold a space of uncertainty for all stakeholders, not just yourself.

The “problem space” supports innovation because it creates a place apart from conventional thinking and kneejerk reactions. A leader has to be comfortable with the discomforts of change in order to hold a “problem space” for herself and her colleagues. And there are ways to hold that space so transformative questioning, knowing and learning can support innovation.

Barthelemy and Dalmagne-Rouge offer some good advice in their article: Go deep to define the issue clearly and fully, search for different viewpoints on the obstacle, and design your meeting so that the physical space and agenda support small group discussions and comfort.

But thereʻs more to holding the space than knowing the practicalities they discuss. From a leadership perspective, itʻs as much about the energy of the space as the strategic search for alternative answers and questions.

First, the ideal “problem space” doesnʻt just suspend solutions to allow better research. It creates collective possibility and responsibility, making the leader just one voice of many instead of the primary voice. Thatʻs a profound shift in itself.

Second, a sustainable “problem space” grows out of a philosophy of unattachment. In that space, all participants need to balance their experience and their curiosity. They must resist holding on to the ideas that will demonstrate their expertise, cement their roles in the company, and prove that theyʻre right, clever, wise and good. Quick solutions inevitably come out of these ego-centered ideas; sustainable solutions are unattached to ego.

Finally, workable innovations grow out of a “problem space” that embraces the unknown as well as the broader, deeper research these two authors recommend. Enjoying, encouraging and engaging with uncertainty is almost a spiritual discipline, at odds with our training to default to quick solutions that feed the bottom line in the short term.

I agree with them about the importance of this leadership discipline, the key to innovation, and a real challenge for all of us. “Staying in the problem space is worth the effort. If you rush to a solution, you run the risk of solving the wrong problem.”


  1. […] Engage in open dialogue. Ask open-ended questions. Invite contrary opinions. Challenge assumptions. Make getting to the truth more important than being right. Let others test your “hypothesis.” Act on what you learn." Good advice — but itʻs not always […]


  2. […] of the most difficult challenges of good leadership development is bridging vision from theory into clear, effective practice.Too many managers fail in leadership […]


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