When is an impossible problem - impossible to solve?

Photo: Richard Segal_Pexels

Photo: Richard Segal_Pexels

Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.
— James Baldwin

Leaders everywhere in business, government and community are facing seemingly impossible problems that need solving. Even the most experienced and successful leaders can face impossible problems. For all these impossible problems, we need brave individuals to take action to solve the problems and then implement the solutions.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
— Albert Einstein

The Impossible Problem Innovation Model®

Some insights and practical techniques learned over many years can be applied to these problems.

These techniques are not industry specific, and you can apply them to many industries. The impossible problem approach enables you to produce dramatic and breakthrough ideas that challenge the usual thinking. This process is a major part of the workshop Rapid Results for Teams, to solve impossible problems and fast.

Diagram 1 introduces The Impossible Problem Innovation Model®.

Impossible Problem Innovation Model.JPG

The Impossible Problem Innovation Model® presents a staged approach to problem-solving your impossible problem, as outlined in Managing B2B customers you can’t afford to lose.

The process generates breakthrough ideas and chooses the best idea to efficiently use your scarce resources — time, money and people — to deliver the best possible value for your best accounts and markets and can be applied to the problem at hand.

Let’s look at a global problem that had little exposure in May 2019, UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating, that seems impossible to solve, but needs to be solved for ourselves and future generations.

The report identifies the key internal and external forces impacting species extinction. Those with vested interests will do everything to maintain the status quo; this is no longer acceptable.

Identify internal and external forces

Applying the model to the problem, first, look for external and internal forces.  The report says the five culprits for damaging nature by reducing species of animals and plants are:

  1. Destroying habitats by expanding human populations and human activities

  2. Exploiting plants and animals for humans

  3. Climate change

  4. Pollution 

  5. Invasive alien species (e.g. Cane Toads)

 Identify impossible problems

The innovation process begins by identifying an idea or a problem that needs to be solved. Most successful innovation is the result of a conscious, purposeful search.

Impossible problems occur when high priority jobs are performed poorly or not performed. Impossible problems are serious or urgent problems that have painful consequences. One such problem is the Paris Accord on Climate Change. This problem is failing to be solved and will continue to fail because the biggest polluters by country and industry on the planet did not sign up to the agreement and there are too many parts of the agreement that are more about wealth transfer than fixing climate issues.

So let’s look at the impossible problem identified in the report of 2019, UN Report: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating.’

It seems impossible to solve:

“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture. The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever, with 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson.

The report and authors identified that the current global response is insufficient. Sharing the problem with as many people as possible will improve the chances of a successful outcome. It was a news item for two hours when released in May 2019, and I recently asked 20 people from different backgrounds, in different industries their reaction to the report.

No-one had heard of it, but each showed genuine interest when I explained the numbers and enormity of this impossible problem.

The report identified that ‘transformative changes’ are needed to restore and protect nature. Transformative changes cannot happen through governments alone; we must all help solve the problem - we must call out those with vested interests who would oppose a change to their industrial practices. Despite my dislike of social media, it can be used for good.

Destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal.
— E.O. Wilson

So let’s identify the impossible problem within the report. As part of the process, we consider the biggest problem: How to stop reducing the number of species of plants and animals? That’s a huge problem, too big for most of us. As part of the process, we also consider what smaller problems we could solve. So using the list of culprits as a start, we could have these problems:

  1. How can we stop destroying habitats in land and sea as we grow human activities?

  2. How can we encourage the sustainable use of plants and animals?

  3. How can we reduce climate change?

  4. How can we reduce pollution? 

  5. How can we reduce cane toads?

Many of these problems are still broad, like items a, b, c and d.  Problem e is narrower, and you probably started thinking about possible solutions. From research and experience, we can be far more creative with solutions when the problem is more specific.

The magnitude and control of biological diversity is not just a central problem of evolutionary biology; it is one of the key problems of science as a whole.
— E.O. Wilson

Biological diversity must be treated more seriously; to do this, we need to convert the abstract, big picture problem into smaller, more concrete problems. These concrete problems engage people. In particular, we must engage our children because they will live with the consequences if we do not solve impossible problems.

In the end... success or failure will come down to an ethical decision, one on which those now living will be judged for generations to come.
— Edward O. Wilson

Every stage of the ‘Impossible Problem Innovation Process’ involves everyone, gaining support at the solution develops. The implementation step needs careful planning. Often, as well as support for the idea, there will be resistance. Implementing the idea will take time and energy.

So, my call to action at this stage is not to solve the impossible problem, but to share this blog or IPBES video with everyone you know. Everyone must know the enormity of our future if we don’t take action. Solving comes later!