Published 3 years ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: Ümit Bulut/Unsplash
Rather than dwelling on problems, a solutions-centered focus — within individuals, organizations, governments, etc — naturally leads to breaking
negative feedback loops, feelings of hopelessness, and cycles of redundant and unproductive work.
There is no doubt about it: The human race faces a multitude of challenges right
now. Regardless of where in the world people live or the industry in which they
work, every person wakes up in a world facing a global pandemic, fighting the
climate emergency, dealing with deep roots of racism and oppression, and
challenging a divisive political climate. At times, the problems can seem
insurmountable. Finding a clear path forward to a healthier, safer, more
equitable, and more sustainable way of living and working can feel downright
When faced with such massive problems, we — as individuals, companies,
communities, governing bodies and the human race — can simply admit defeat and
walk away. Or, we can continue the work needed to chip away at the world’s
challenges. The good news is, the path to a more sustainable future is already
illuminated if people are willing to lean into action with a solutions-focused
“A solutions-focused mindset is crucial for sustainable development,” said
Eliza Erskine, founder of Green Buoy
Consulting, which provides
sustainability-focused services. “As the science becomes clearer on the climate
and other indicators show the need for sustainability, we need to move from
discussion and engagement into a solution.”
It is human nature to focus on problems. Hashing and rehashing problems often
surfaces more problems, encouraging people to spend more mental energy focused
on negative aspects of a situation rather than using that mental energy to move
on to solution-seeking and problem-solving.
published in April in Conservation Letters: A Journal of the Society of
Conservation Biology found that the majority of conservation studies (70
percent) don’t propose responses to observed changes. Further, there doesn’t
appear to be an ongoing evolution of finding solutions to these problems: As
co-author David R. Williams said in an interview with
about the research, “We don’t seem to be developing this deeper understanding of
threats or how to respond to them.”
But just as staying in a cycle of problems surfaces more problems, focusing on
solutions uncovers more solutions. The research paper highlights a few
successful conservation efforts that follow a progressive framework to
demonstrate the benefits of a more holistic and solutions-focused research
approach. However, it also notes the underlying and pervasive problem with the
current strategy for reporting on conservation efforts: “This lack of research
on the sorts of questions that might most help conservation science deliver its
stated mission strongly suggests we will struggle to translate the huge increase
in research activity into real‐world benefits.”
Adopting a solutions-focused mindset — whether within individuals,
organizations, governments, etc — naturally leads to breaking negative feedback
loops, feeling of impossibility, and cycles of redundant and unproductive work.
The truth is, there are countless creative and innovative solutions addressing
sustainability issues being developed and refined every day by people,
organizations and social impact initiatives. Seeking out and learning about
these solutions can help light the fire needed to move from negativity and
inaction to optimism and meaningful action.
The road to a world operating sustainably by default is paved with
experimentation, adaptation, flexibility and additional unexpected challenges.
“It's important to have a solution-centered focus whenever you are tackling
something unknown,” said Brenden Fitzgerald, CEO of Planet
Protein — a vegan protein powder company committed
to sustainability and carbon neutrality. “Even in 2020, there are not many
businesses working to pursue a carbon-neutral footprint or just a more
eco-friendly one. Being focused on solutions will ensure that sustainability
measures continue to move forward, even if the first, second or third idea
didn't work out.”
Adopting a solutions-focused mindset means letting go of the belief that we as
individuals and society know all the answers. It requires asking hard questions,
embracing collaboration and seeking out experts who can help think in new ways.
Additionally, it means being truly committed to a sustainable mission.
“I think that, if you don't have the solution as the framework to build upon —
and instead, just try to squeeze something sustainable in as an appendage after
the product or service is created — it just won't work to produce the
large-scale change that the global society needs,” said Lauren DeCarli,
founder and chief creative officer of sustainable apparel brand Paneros
When people feel helpless, they acquire a sense of disempowerment and believe
their actions do not make a difference. When they fall into a problem-focused
mindset with the belief that circumstances can’t be changed, people become
unresponsive and fatalistic. The inclination, then, is to be a passive observer
— rather than an engaged participant interested in and willing to change.
“Part of why a solutions-focus is helpful in pursuing sustainability is because
it builds momentum,” Erskine said. This momentum is important because there is
no finish line to sustainability — just new opportunities to adapt, problem
solve; and seek out even better, more sustainable solutions. “Once you've found
one solution, or part of a solution to a problem; it builds on itself and paves
the way for others to develop solutions, too. Even if progress is slow — when
one solution is created, it leads to additional solutions and usually better
ones down the road,” Erskine added.
Embracing more sustainable practices inherently requires rethinking and changing
business operations, government policies, and personal actions and behaviors.
Helplessness is a learned behavior that can be unlearned, and becoming aware of
progress and solutions is part of the unlearning process.
The sense of purpose and feeling of hopefulness that come with this way of
thinking are certainly beneficial. However, those features are byproducts of the
true need for a mindset and outlook that is future-facing and centered around
solutions: There is no alternative.
“The alternative is waiting on the sidelines for someone else to take charge,
while many people are in a position to create solutions,” Erskine said. “They
just need to take the first step.”
DeCarli pointed out that being solutions-oriented is essential for action;
feigning action and sidestepping solutions often results in brands greenwashing
their sustainability efforts and confusing consumers who want to be more ethical
in their purchasing decisions.
“This is the cause of some of the major problems with greenwashing, which
distracts from the monumental task at stake,” she said. This “does a huge
disservice to those who are taking it more seriously and are solutions-focused.”
Accepting the status quo, waiting for others to act, or holding back instead of
critically thinking about how to chart a way forward means letting precious time
slip by while global challenges keep mounting. Adopting a solutions-oriented
focus is the first and most critical step in manifesting a more sustainable
future built on intentional change.
Published Nov 12, 2020 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker and solutions advocate who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for her entire career. She is also the founder of Rooted — a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, social impact and storytelling. A returned US Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer and intrepid traveler, JoAnna helps tourism professionals decolonize travel and support sustainability using strategic communication skills.