When problem-solving, it is easy to lose your train of thought and focus too much on the solving, and not a whole lot on what you’re actually trying to solve. It doesn’t seem like it can be that much of a problem at first as long as you’re getting things done, right?
Today I’d like to dispel that myth and talk about how solutioneering can actually contribute to even bigger problems.
Allow me to introduce to you to Thomas Midgley Jr.
Thomas Midgley Jr. was an American mechanical and chemical engineer, described by environmental historian J.R. McNeill as having “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.”
Midgley liked to solve problems, you see. He liked to solve them a lot.
His first great contribution to humanity was an anti-knocking agent for cars. Back then, cars made a lot of noise and used to break down a whole lot, so Midgley decided it would be great if he came up with a chemical solution he could pour into the gasoline to help with the problem. (Of course, the better thing to do would’ve been to focus on the fact that maybe the engines needed to change… but again, he wanted to solutioneer his own way.)
And so he came up with iodine. Iodine worked really great, but it was way too expensive. His next fix came in the form of ethanol… but that was too easy and accessible.
What I forgot to mention was that Midgley had been employed to fix this little problem by no other than General Motors. And so he came up with the one solution that would make them money: leaded gasoline.
It should be noted that even back then, the effects of leaded gasoline were known, with Midgley and hundreds of others falling ill and even dying throughout the testing and product phases. GM was forced to run studies to ensure that it was in fact “safe.”
Fast forward 50 years, we are all now suffering from the effects of carbon emissions from leaded gasoline cars. You know who to thank now.
But wait… there’s more.
Just like focusing on releasing tons of new features to keep people happy (or in this case, rich) Midgley moved on from the leaded gasoline project to solutioneering even more problems, cause that’s just what he did.
His second great contribution to our lives was Freon, a cooling agent for air conditioning and refrigeration units. Back then the chemicals used in refrigeration units tended to be a bit… explosive. This resulted in random combustion of units in public places, and that’s never a good thing.
Good ol’ chap that he is, Midgley actually came up with the solution in just a matter of days for Frigidaire, a brand new company GM had just acquired.
Now to his benefit, Freon was a stable substance and resulted in that super cool feeling you get when you walk into the mall. Yes, he did it! Lay back and have a cold beer, on Midgley. 🍺
Except Freon eventually had other applications… such as aerosol sprays. For those Gen-Z’s that don’t know this, we didn’t actually find out about the thinning of the ozone layer until 1985, almost 60 years after the invention of Freon. It was a whole thing back then, and a huge campaign arose to keep the ozone safe and stop using aerosols all together.
And so thanks to Midgley’s innate ability to jump to solutions quickly, the world was left with the biggest environmental fall out in history (that is, aside from the invention of plastic. You can thank Leo Hendrik Baekeland for that one.)
Product manager beware: take a step back, breath, and focus on the problem. Solely focusing on putting out a solution quickly could actually leave you with an even bigger disaster.