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Big Ideas

Skeptics vs Cynics: Problem-Solving with a Bias Towards Resolution

We all need collaborators who are willing to bring the reality check. The difference between skeptics and cynics is a focus on moving forward.

I’ve written before about the valuable role that skeptics play in a creative team. Although these poo-poo’ers that love to find fault with new ideas can be annoying, they’re always helpful – and essential to making ideas happen. Without them, we can get intoxicated on idea generation and fail to focus, refine our ideas, and follow through enough to succeed. So skeptics are good.However, skeptical does not mean cynical. I have observed in some teams a dangerous dynamic where skeptics turn cynical and negative. Rather than try to fix problems, they obsess over what is broken. Not only does this further obstruct finding an expedient resolution, it also sucks energy out of the team.Here’s the difference:

The skeptic: “I’m concerned about the issue, and I think we need to revisit X and Y. Perhaps we want to try Z instead? Or maybe there is a way we can tweak Y to work?”

The cynic: “We did not discuss the issue enough. X and Y are both wrong. We’re not approaching this in the right way.”

Notice how both people disagree, but the skeptic is pushing the search for a solution while the cynic is simply focused on what is wrong.

Rather than try to fix problems, they obsess over what is broken.

In a creative environment that moves a mile a minute, everyone should act with a bias towards resolution. This means discussing the problem with the intention of solving it rather than embellishing it. As a leader of a creative team, you should expect possible solutions from everyone, even those that are pessimistic. The possible solutions don’t need to be the right solutions, and they don’t need to be fully constructed.

The process of discussing a problem in the language of resolution can help a team maintain enough energy to debate the options. Like throwing spaghetti on a wall, the more solutions proposed, the more likely one sticks. If you’re the team skeptic, you can rest assured knowing that debating the merits of various solutions will shed more light on the problem.

Many leaders insist that adversity only serves to strengthen a team. Problems help us better understand our product and further refine the way we work. Unfortunately, problems also bring out the worst in people. Tempers, insecurities, and fears are most likely to flare up during conflict. Nevertheless, the best teams are able to weather the storm by keeping their eyes on the prize – the prospect of resolution.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (8)
  • Kylie Sexton

    Great Article!

    There are various different stages in making a change or creating a robust and useful idea. For these you need people with different skill-sets or personality types. A great team that creates great ideas and changes would incorporate people who can do the following behaviours…

    to inspire Motivation – Challenging & Awakening
    to create Action – Reflection/Probing & Provoking
    to Create the idea – Creation/ Dreaming & Processing / Tasking
    to Solidify the idea – Celebrate & Test

    The skeptic that you refer to is in the ‘solidify’ stage of the creation process where testing and looking for ways it won’t work, is a very necessary part of the process. Equally important is celebrating the creation and strengthening the things that do work, and adjusting the things that don’t.

    The best teams that can ‘weather the storm’ of the problem realise that the problems are an integral part of the process and as you say, keep their eyes on the prize.

    (this model I’ve referred to is part of the Axes of Change Model from the Meta-Coaching training by Dr Michael Hall.)

  • Eva

    I think you may not know what a cynic is. If you mean a negative person, then say that. A cynic is a skeptic. Cynics were a group of people who placed no importance in social conventions that did not actually improve life. They tested everything for virtue.

  • PEZ

    Good point! Skepticism is NOT cinicism. Might I promote this old article of mine regarding the Devil’s Advocate?

  • radj

    Finally! A principle I have in my head and this is the best way to put it in words. Definitely sharing. Thanks! 🙂

  • denarosko

    I encourage people to find confidence and experience applying their gifts; theoretically, when troubles occur, people have a bit more confidence to be less insecure and… attacking.

  • dumb fucking article

    you completely made up those definitions of skeptic and cynic

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