Problem-solving at work: Struggle and insight go together

Struggles often lead to insights

There are dozens of things I don’t understand about how most workplaces are structured, but potentially paramount among that series of things I don’t get is this sequence:

So, umbrella-level problem: you need ideas to move forward, but how you think about where the ideas come from, who generates them, and why your schedule is organized the way it is? None of that really makes sense. That’s a problem. What can be done?

Here’s an article from Fast Company; there are legitimate suggestions down near the bottom in terms of encouraging breakthrough thinking, and some of them are pretty interesting. Something near the top of the article is a bit more interesting, though:

Of course, there’s nothing magic about it. “Struggle and insight go together,” says David Perkins, research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “You are not likely to achieve an insight, unless you’ve struggled with the problem some.”

Perkins literally wrote a book on breakthrough thinking, so he has some idea of what he’s discussing here. (He also works at Harvard, so he’s broadly pretty vetted.)

This is really important to remember, I think: oftentimes moments aren’t “A-Ha!” at all. They come after a lot of struggle and failure around a specific topic. You can argue at a very top-line level that this concept is the most important to Silicon Valley’s growth: basically fail, fail, fail, and then bam, succeed. But the failure steps were important. Remember: Twitter was going to be a function within a podcasting app. Imagine how communication patterns would be different if that had built out a different way?

The problem with this “necessity of failure as a starting place for great original thought” is that we don’t often talk about failure — and especially not at work — so it can often feel like failure isn’t tolerated within a culture, even though everything is failing all the time and just not discussing it. If you feel like failure isn’t tolerated, then you tend to choose safer solutions — because safer solutions typically lead to less failure. They also lead to less innovation. You see similar problems with “how senior executives make decisions” and “how people deal with open headcount.”

Just remember: oftentimes great ideas emerge from failure. It might actually be helpful to design work events where team leads discuss some of their biggest flops and what they learned from them. It would shift the culture towards a place where failure is OK so long as it isn’t consistent and leads to something. If failure is OK, struggle can more directly lead to insight.


Ted Bauer


  1. Very much related to this is the idea that a manager/senior level person should know at least the core aspects of the positions that report into him/her. Of course, it’s ideal when the manager/senior level person has actually worked in the positions below him/her. Too often, the Peter Principle comes into play and causes problems that stem from a lack of basic understanding about the hierarchy that comprises the business.

    • I could summarize a lot of my posts by simply writing “The Peter Principle explains this,” I think.

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