Sometimes BS Isn’t All Bad, Especially When Dealing with SMAPs

No, I’m not writing about bulls**t.  I’m writing about an approach to problem solving that my friend and colleague, Alan Engelstad, has dubbed “Benevolent Skepticism.” [Hence the somewhat misleading “BS” tag in the title of this post.  I hope it worked to get your attention.]  SMAPs are Solutions-Masquerading-as-Problems, but more on that later.

Benevolent skepticism is not really a technique; it’s more of an attitude or a philosophical approach to be taken when someone comes to you and says, “I have a problem.”  Rather than simply accepting that statement as a fact, a benevolent skeptic would get very curious about what is really going on.  She would ask questions.  “Why is that a problem for you?”  “What would things be like if the problem were to disappear?” “In situations like this one, why does X always happen, and not Y or Z?”  In essence, the benevolent skeptic is deeply curious about what is really going on, and is always non-judgemental.

My goal here isn’t to tell you how to become a benevolent skeptic.  I’m really more interested in pointing you toward a blog post that Alan [that’s him in the picture on the left] authored with a colleague, Karl Moore, and published at this past week. In the article, titled “SMAP Solutions Masquerading as Problems,” Alan gets to the essence of both SMAPs and benevolent skepticism so elegantly that I won’t even atttempt to paraphrase him.  I’ll just quote him:

When you’ve been SMAPed, you’ve been given the wrong problem.  You’re so busy trying to make your solution work you’ve obscured what it is all in aid of.  Give up. Acknowledge that the problem-as-defined is proven intractable.  Move on.

Then get curious.  How can the problem be recast into a more solvable form, without losing anything important in the process?  Get someone to help you describe the end game assuming your “solution” was successful, and drill down: If homeless people were no longer lazy, etc, then what?

When you are handed your next problem, stop, think, and be curious. Force yourself to delve beyond your immediate and instinctual understanding of what the problem (and its solution) entails. Taking these actions are likely to illuminate the redundancies in the “obvious” solution, and produce more creative and fruitful results. Perhaps some of the more intractable problems we face are not as bad as we think, we just need to not jump so quickly to the ready made solutions.

I have to acknowledge that I am shamelessly promoting an article that gives me a nice plug at the end.  Overlook that and read the article [click here to read the SMAP article].  It may help you resolve, or even dissolve some of your biggest “problems.”


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  1. Every time I come up with an answer they change the question……people want to be HEARD more than to hear a solution. They want proof that you heard them more than your certainty in your solution.

    1. That’s a part of it, but I think there is a lot more to it than simply people wanting to be heard. People construe situations to be problems when they can’t find an answer. The best way to help is rarely to give them an answer. It is to help they find an answer that works for them.

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