There’s an old riddle about a man who was driving in the mountains on a road that was infrequently traveled. Suddenly he felt the car shudder and heard a rather disturbing noise come from the rear right tire. He got out to see what the problem could be and discovered that the tire was blown and completely flat.
Miles from anywhere, he opened the trunk, removed the spare tire, and then got out the tire jack. One ratchet down on the handle and the jack broke, without moving the car even an inch.
Now what should he do?
It’s fun to listen to the answers people come up with, especially when they know the situation is a riddle about problem solving. Some want to fix the jack. Some want to phone a friend. Some will wait it out. Some will consider the option of driving on the flatted tire, or of hitchhiking to the nearest service station or to the first house they can find.
All of these answers focus on the broken solution: the tool that didn’t work—the broken jack. I’m surprised at how few people focus and then refocus on the real problem: the car needs to be safely elevated in order to change the tire. It’s remarkably easy to let the focus shift from the problem (the tire on the car has to come off) to the failed solution (a broken jack). Some of the workarounds are interesting in either case—such as going to get help. But if we don’t realize there’s a difference between a flat tire and a broken jack, there may be solutions that are filtered out by where we place our focus.
There is a small but significant lesson here, it seems to me. When confronted by a solution that no longer works, we may focus on how that solution can be repaired rather than on the problem it was created to solve in the first place. A focus on fixing the solution, rather than solving the problem, may cripple our capacity for imagining change. Developing the capacity to change means looking at things with new eyes—and paying careful attention to assumptions that may have locked out change, thus limiting the discovery of new solutions or growth.
Søren Kierkegaard famously said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Reaching backwards towards old solutions—broken or not—is tempting because the solutions are familiar. But life must be lived forwards, even when the solutions for challenges are not apparent. Sometimes new solutions emerge precisely when we refocus and find new ways of looking at a problem.
(And check those jacks before driving in the mountains, OK?)