All too often we look to tackle individual problems in isolation. In doing so, we overlook the fact that these issues are just symptoms of deeper, underlying issues. I had a stark reminder of this at a recent climate change conference.

A broad group of entrepreneurs and academics showcased cutting-edge efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The innovations were indeed groundbreaking, but all of this sat under the shadow of humanity’s consistent reluctance to address the root cause in a timely manner— namely rising carbon emissions.

In the time since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, carbon emissions from fossil fuels and industry have skyrocketed from 24 billion tons to over 37 billion tons in 2021 and we have yet to see a peak.

While we clearly need to mitigate the fallout, this can only ever be second best to going after the source problem, which in this instance is itself just a manifestation of the predominant economic and social system. Without that, problems will continue to mushroom.

What is the Meta Problem?

It is human nature to focus on immediate problems. We can see the consequences, making both the problem and potential solutions more tangible. The instinct is to do something now rather than explore what might have caused the problem in the first place.

It is the “don’t just stand there, do something” approach. This can feel satisfying and empowering but ultimately if we’re not targeting the meta problem how are we helping long-term? This approach only offers short-term relief.

But what if we pivoted? What if, instead of just treating symptoms, we delved deep to understand and address these meta problems?

By doing so, we could unlock solutions that are not just palliative, but transformative, laying down a foundation for a more sustainable and resilient future.

> What brought about this problem?

> What would need to be true for our problem to disappear?

> What other problems are related?

> What is the connection?

> What then is the meta problem?

> Who is interested in solving the meta problem?

> Who benefits from the status quo?

Questions in the Image:

  • What if we solved the meta problem?
  • What would need to be true for our problem to disappear?

Want to Read More Around This Topic?

Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows (link to This book provides an introduction to systems thinking and offers insights into understanding the complex systems within which problems arise.

Nurturing Curiosity – Daily Practice: This is part of the Nurturing Curiosity series of tools, insights and questions designed to help nurture curiosity as part of our daily practice. In point of fact, every interaction we have is an opportunity to question what we are observing and how we and others are seeing the world. Also remember that questions come in many forms throughout our day. A Monday morning might be asking us What do I want to accomplish this week? Will the same routines work for me? What might I do differently?

What Thoughts Would You Like to Share? My name is Tom O’Leary, and I envision a world in which curiosity shapes leadership. In this world, leaders aren’t boxed in by traditional thinking or established playbooks. They are open to fresh ideas and diverse perspectives, fostering a culture of exploration and learning. My mission is to shift leadership focus from authority, over-measurement and control to curiosity, learning and innovation, empowering leaders to prioritise the essential. My journey, lived in a number of countries and through various languages, has always been driven by a profound sense of curiosity. In fact, life has taught me that possibility lies not so much in seeking answers but in learning to ask better questions – the ones that help prioritise what is truly essential. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, or personal experiences related to these questions or any insights they may have sparked.