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Author: John Vaught

The Fruits of a Problem May Be the Problem

Old agricultural metaphors are fascinating – 

sometimes we are using them even though the closest we ever get to harvesting a crop is squeezing a tomato in the store; the thought of even getting dirt under your nails may send shivers down your spine. One of the most common is the idea of bearing fruit.

The concept is easy to understand because there are only a rare few of us these days who can look at a fruit tree in the off season and have any idea of what it is, but I’ve plunked down some money and walked into a grove to pick fruit that magically appears in the fall (and eaten a few while filling the bucket – don’t judge, I know you’ve eaten grapes in a store). When I’m yanking that red ball of sweetness off the branch it’s easy to see that it’s an apple tree. I can tell what kind of tree it is by the fruit it bears.
In our places of work we sometimes come across fruit that has spoiled and rotted. If you are in IT or a process-oriented team you are used to the idea of root cause analysis – when something stops working it is usually the results, or fruit, of a deeper issue that needs to be discovered and fixed so that it doesn’t happen again. It’s not often easy, but if you don’t do the hard work of determining the underlying causes then it’s bound to happen again and again, causing more stress and pain in the long run. Sometimes a whole team may need to be utilized to dig in and figure it out.

While root cause analysis is a incredibly useful thing to do when something stinks with technology or processes, it is highly tempting to do the same thing with people.


With processes and systems, you can take them apart and look at the pieces individually, often no matter how complex they are. That’s not true for humans beings. We are far, far too complex in ways that the best of us do not understand, with a hint of wackiness in everyone. Looking for a root cause is rarely worth the effort, and can even lead you down a path that takes you away from looking at them as human and instead as something to figure out.


From Hal Runkel, a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist:
We’ve all been schooled to pursue the deep roots of a problem–searching for the underlying cause. In reality, it is often the fruits of a problem that spur its continuation. These are the secondary, unspoken gains we receive as a result of the problem’s presence.

Every parent out there has done this – it is really hard not to. Your kid just did something inexplicable such as tell you a blatant lie that everyone in the room knows is a lie. Your first instinct, after wondering what you did to deserve this kind of treatment (and you probably do deserve it since you did it to your parents), is to say something like the following: “Why did you lie?” As if they are going to do a deep, serious introspection and come up with an answer that would astound Freud. And when they come up with something lame you send them to their room to go figure it out. You head out the door to go to work, where you lie to your coworkers at least 10 times. University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman says it’s hard to have a conversation without someone lying, often without even realizing it.

Why do we think a seven-year old is going to know why they did anything? Frankly, we don’t really know why we do most of what we do; being a grown-up means we are just better at justifying it afterwards.

This is true not only for our kids, our partners, our in-laws (definitely don’t know what they’re thinking), and our co-workers. You are not equipped to determine motivation. What you can do is identify the fruits.

Sometimes when we are struggling with a problem it is because we may be unknowingly enjoying the benefits, or the fruit, of the behaviors that are putting us in that situation. The same is true of coworkers that are spoiling the bunch.

Rather than looking at the person, or yourself, as “rotten” maybe we should be assessing the environment or culture to see if there is something that rewards the behaviors we want to avoid.

For example, maybe there is someone on your team that is constantly late for meetings. Rather than labeling that person as “spoiled” and trying to understand their motivation, deal with the fruits of the problem. Address the person to see if there is some environmental or scheduling issue. Is there some cost for the person if they have to arrive on time to the meetings in other areas, such as not getting other work done? Help them understand the cost of being late to meetings for the rest of the team.

Ask yourself: What are all the results of my current problem, even ones seemingly unrelated. Do I unknowingly want those results? If not me, is there someone who does? What are all the possible results if I solve my problem? What will be missed?

Storming the Brain

You’ve been to a meeting (or twenty) in which the leader tells you that the group is going to brainstorm.

There are rules to storming, of course, which are things such as:

  • Put all the ideas out there first
  • Everyone contributes
  • Pretend like what you just heard was not a dumb idea

If you find yourself in a meeting like this, you can have some fun by asking quirky questions to appear smart in brainstorming meetings:

  • Shouldn’t we be asking if this ask is the right ask?This seems like a pivot.
  • But how is it disruptive?
  • Is this the future?
  • What’s the big Win?
  • Isn’t that putting lipstick on a pig?
  • How does this fit into the roadmap?
  • We have the cake, but the cake needs sprinkles. What are the sprinkles?
  • Is it too disruptive?

Sure, you’re going to get some looks when people figure out what you are doing, but that’s because this is the best way to get creative ideas on the table. Grab a group, throw out as many ideas as possible without any judgement, and then crazy creativity happens. Right?

Not according to this article, which boldly states that “Brainstorming is Dumb.”

But it turns out that brainstorming is actually a terrible technique—in fact, people generate fewer good ideas when they brainstorm together than when they work alone.

Alex Osborn came up with the “brainstorming” method in the 1940s and it has now become ubiquitous; few people are asking if it actually works. Turns out that it has the opposite effect – you turn out better ideas alone than using this method. Paul Paulus, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Arlington, has this to say about why:


“Brainstorming is a complex process where people are trying to listen, think, add, collaborate, build. It’s cumbersome, it’s difficult psychologically, and people don’t do it very well.”

You may be thinking – why didn’t someone tell me! Well, they have, since as early as 1958.

If it doesn’t work, for goodness sake people, let’s stop doing it! Let’s get real about creativity – it rarely happens at the drop of a hat or because we throw ten people in a room. Creativity is hard work, and it can take time and deep thought.

So does this really mean that I should ignore everyone else and rely on my inner creative genius? Well, sometimes.


One study found that should do the opposite of the one thing that Osborn thought was the most important – feel free to debate suggestions as they come in. Criticism is often thought of as a creativity killer, when in fact the studies consistently find that debate lifts ideas and brings up more and better alternatives and as well as diverse ideas.

“In a way, the power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives.” 

This also says something about the mix of people that are best at having these kinds of debates. Those who are strangers do not have the comfort to truth, but those who are too comfortable with each other do not push into new areas. Some familiarity mixed with some newness can provide a freshness, if you know what I mean.


One study looked at the results provided from three-person groups performing a complex problem-solving task. Using the Osborn form of brainstorming you would think that the group that collaborated the most had ideas that were more than the sum of their parts. Wrong. That group had the most mediocre results; this shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider that group dynamics will often bring results back to the average. The other result isn’t too surprising either – the groups with no interactions had some of the best results; but they also had some of the worst. Working alone produced results all over the map.

Here’s where you need to pay attention: the group that interacted intermittently had the consistently best results.

The right mix of individual effort, in deep work, with some group interaction will generally produce overall better results. I know that didn’t rock your world. Of course, you are thinking, I just wasted ten minutes of my time to read about something I already do.

But here’s the kicker – you probably aren’t using the right mix. Most of us are using the mixer when we should be cooking, and vice versa, ending up with scrapple on your plate…

Your most creative work is when you are blocked off from other people and can truly concentrate. Your best time to contrast and compare to make the ideas better is when you are collaborating.

The Problem = we are entering a world where it is getting harder and harder to block off interactions, so we are consistently putting ourselves into the group that produces mediocre results.

You Are Not Asking Enough Questions

If you have kids, when they were around 4 years old you were subjected to them asking a single question that they would keep asking over and over till it would drive you crazy.

One study found that they average about 73 questions per day. What is the main question they ask? You know the answer to this one:


Why is the sky blue? Where did I come from? Where did the moon go? Why are those animals wrestling? “That’s a good question to ask your mom, kiddo.”

And the Why’s usually doesn’t stop with the first answer, does it? You might think you gave them a great response, but as soon as they ask it for the second, or third, or fourth time, it gets frustrating:

  1. It doesn’t seem like their questions are ever going to end (hiding doesn’t work, you’ve tried it); and
  2. It is frustrating how quickly you run out of good answers.

But in reality, the last thing we really want to do is to stop kids from asking questions. It’s a fundamental way they learn and develop. Maybe one of the reasons why our own development as adults slows down later in life is because we stop asking so many questions.

Are we telling our kids, consciously or subconsciously, to stop asking questions?

Now, there is a point later in life that kids start to ask questions again. Anyone have a teenager at home? If you are holding up your hand, let me comfort you with these words – this too shall pass.

For teens, the questions change from being about the world around them to directly about them. Why do I have to do chores? Why can’t I go out with my friends? The questions at this stage are less about how nature works and more about how you work. We get frustrated with these questions because it feels like they are challenging our authority.

But… maybe even these teen questions are good questions as well. Let’s turn it around for you – how well do you like it when someone at work tells you “Because I said so”? Friends, that’s not a good answer in the home or the workplace.

Are we telling our work staff, consciously or subconsciously, to stop asking questions?

Let’s just be honest – we sometimes get frustrated with coworkers asking questions, and probably for the very same reasons we lost our minds when our kids were doing it:


  1. It seems like questions are taking the place of doing work; and
  2. There may not be good answers for their questions.

I totally get #1. You can almost see the fear in people’s eyes when someone starts asking questions in a meeting, wondering if they are summoning the dreadful Analysis Paralysis, the dreaded gorgon that stops us in our tracks and wreaks havoc with our schedules.

But before we jump into action, let’s make sure we aren’t squashing the drive to ask questions. Because sometimes activity is just a way to mask the fact that we don’t have the answers; which gets us to point #2.

If we don’t have clarity around why we are asking someone to do something, then maybe that something doesn’t need to be done.

Here’s a scary equation that often drives people to squelch questions:

Time Cost of Asking Questions = Time Cost of Doing Something

It’s easy to look at that equation and go, “Oh my! We don’t have time for questions! Someone do something, for goodness sake!” But what we don’t think about is the huge costs of doing the wrong things that could have been saved with a small amount of questions:

Time Cost of Asking Questions < Time Cost of Doing the Wrong Thing + Time Cost of Rework

For some reason it is easy to think that asking questions is far less valuable than doing actions – even when we don’t know exactly why we are doing it! Activity does not equal value; creating artifacts or a product that no one really wants drives value down. in fact, asking people to think about what they are doing might be the most valuable thing you can do.

I’m encouraging you to bring out your inner 4-year-old and keep asking why – it may drive the people around you a little nuts but they may just end up thanking you in the end.