How Can You Go Meta to Solve a Problem When You’re Stuck?

A client, Dave, explained his concerns and said, “I have no idea where to go from here.” He explained that he’d already gone through his reasonable problem-solving steps. He’d researched, asked the team to experiment, and asked his peers for help. Nothing was working.

I asked, “Do you know about going “meta” on the problem?”

He shook his head. “You’re not going to just give me the answer, are you?”

I shook my head, and the two of us laughed.

Dave had a real problem. Because each member worked individually, the team was slow to deliver. No one learned from each other. And, no one trusted each other.

The worst part was Dave felt as if their lack of collaboration was his fault. He felt as if he’d let the team—and his organization—down.

His feelings colored all his possible options and made the problems feel even worse.

Dave was stuck—on the problems and in his feelings about the problems.

If you ever feel this way, consider how you can go “meta” about the problem.

Go Meta About the Problem

Dave had real problems. However, his feelings made him feel worse and prevented him from seeing alternatives. Dave’s feelings were the meta problem.

Note that I’m not saying that having feelings is a problem. Not at all. Our emotions often point to a deeper problem: the meta problem.

Dave had to admit the source of his concerns to himself. He worried that he wasn’t a good enough manager. Or that he let the team and the organization down.

He fell into the FEAR trap: Fear Experienced as Reality.

When we go meta, we identify and address the problem around the apparent problem.

We discussed why Dave was a good manager and had not let anyone down, even though he felt stuck on this problem.

However, that’s not always enough. Sometimes, we need to ask a question that always makes me feel funny—to ask my inner self.

Ask Your Inner Self

When I ask my inner self, I ask, “If you could solve this problem, what would the solution look like?”

The first time I tried the “ask your inner self” option, I thought it was woo-woo, or magic. At first, I didn’t have an answer. However, when I suggested the question to Dave, he had several responses. He could:

  • Reward people when they collaborate.
  • Focus on outcomes, not what individuals did.
  • Model the behaviors he wanted to see.

He told me the third option was quite scary. So I asked what that would look like. He identified specific people he could collaborate with, for his deliverables.

Then, he surprised me: he decided right then and there who to choose first.

Problem-Solving Includes Our Emotions

Once Dave acknowledged his emotions, the meta problem, he was able to identify several possibilities to solve the “real” problem. And, as I remind myself, our emotions also help us discover the “real” problems.

Some of you have known me for years, and have heard me say, “I’m know I’m feeling something, but I have no idea what that is.” (Some of you are laughing at me, and that’s fine. I laugh at myself when I say that.) That’s when I realize I need to go meta, and search the problem that’s preventing me from finding possible solutions.

That’s why, if you realize you’re stuck and have done all the intellectual work, consider going meta. Is there a problem around this identified problem? Maybe you can solve that meta problem.

And, if you’re still stuck, ask yourself the question: If I could solve this problem, what would the answer look like?

(For more information, see When Do You Suffer from FEAR?)


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© 2022 Johanna Rothman

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