Problem-Focus vs Solution-Focus

by Daimen Hardie on December 15, 2015

Today, Permaculture students at the Rural Innovation Campus began exploring what will be both the most demanding and the most valuable aspect of their training - design. Demanding because this topic challenges  the very way one thinks about problems.

Focusing on the solution, rather than the problem . . .

When you approach a challenge are you problem-focused or solution-focused? Sounds cryptic, but I’ll explain.

On the one hand, a problem-focused approach is similar to the traditional scientific method.  It begins with a definition of all the different parts of the problem – the present reality - and then works within this limited set of parameters towards a solution. In other words it is a reductionist approach.

Alternatively, a solution-focused approach begins with a goal – a future scenario currently outside of reality – and explores several possible paths to achieving that goal, more or less simultaneously.  It is an expansive process otherwise known as thinking outside the box.


A path to solution-focused thinking . . .

Of course, good problem solving employs both methods in varying proportion depending on the nature and complexity of the challenge at hand.

If the brakes on your car are not working for example, you’re better off applying a reductionist approach.  It’s not really the time to dream expansively of a future when brakes don’t wear out, cars fix themselves, and you don’t need a car anymore because the hyperloop passes right by your neighbourhood.  Focusing instead on facts will reveal where exactly the problem lies in your brake system – in the fluid, lines, callipers, shoes, rotors or some combination of these finite components – and so allow you to make the appropriate repairs.

In contrast to mechanical systems like the example above, solution-focused thinking excels when dealing with complex living systems - like a community, an organization, or a farm.  Several techniques and theories exist to guide solution-focused thinking.  Permaculture is one such practice.


Permaculture is about design, and design is a creative process . . .

The fact that Permaculture is a design discipline often comes as surprise to those who associate it only with token gardening methods – mulch, chicken tractors, food forests, etc.  In fact, the most valuable aspects of Permaculture are not these innovations but the methods and processes of solution-focused thinking that gave rise to them in the first place.

Permaculture is solution-focused design.  Rather than simply preaching dos and don’ts, Permaculture training is about cultivating the analytical and creative skills necessary for people to innovate their own solutions.  Farmers and community leaders trained at the Rural Innovation Campus will begin by employing these newly acquired skills to the design of their own farm or home gardens, but after that the possible applications are limitless.  Some ideas change how we see the world, and then we change the world.

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