10 Keys to Solving the Right Problems: Part I

What’s the problem?
Problems, problems… who’s got problems?  We all do, but before we can solve them we must first define them.  Otherwise, we’re apt to solve the wrong problem!  Sadly, this happens all the time. SO let’s take a page from Einstein’s book. He is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.
Don’t put the cart before the horse (or mule, burro, zebra or… gee whiz, what kind of animal do you have there?)! Back up! 
There’s no one right way to solve a problem.  Yet we fall into a trap when we rush to find solutions. I learned this years ago attending a workshop at the Interaction Method in San Francisco.  It was an invaluable lesson.

The creators of the method, Michael Doyle and David Straus, distilled all their best advice about running meetings in How To Make Meetings Work (a book I highly recommend in its entirety; here I’m channeling just the chapter on solving problems). In a nutshell:  problem definition is the one important thing you must do to assure you solve the right problem. 

Without a clear definition of the problem to be attacked the entire process will be misdirected.  Problems, Doyle and Straus note, boil down to perceptions.  Whose problem is it? Ever stop a children’s fight and ask them what it was about? Generally you’ll get something like: “He hit me and I fought back.” “No, she started calling me names,” etc. The objective in collaborative problem solving is to get to agreement on the common statement of the problem. As stated in an excellent case vignette about framing business problems to inform relevant research:  Even a good road map is useless unless you know just where you are going.  All of the roads can be correctly drawn, but they still don’t get you where you want to be.
To assure you’re headed in the right direction, and solving the right problem here are tips gleaned from experience, plus wisdom from Doyle, Straus and John Dewey:
  1. Clarify that problems aren’t ‘bad’. They’re a fact of life. Change occurs and change requires responses. Don’t be afraid of problems, don’t ignore them and don’t try to gussy them up by calling them something else. One technique is the “best, worst and most probable’ scenario”. When folks are resistant to addressing a problem, ask them what’s the best, worst and most probable thing that will happen as a result of solving/not solving the issue. Often folks will not be able to think of any terrible consequences if they try to resolve the issue, and then will become more willing to get the ball rolling.
  1. Legitimize problem perceptions. Ask everyone to state their personal view. Don’t judge at this point. If there is a lot of dissonance, try discussing how folks feel about their perception of the problem. If Joe says “There’s a problem with productivity” Sam may feel threatened that he’s going to have to work longer hours.  If Joe understands how Sam feels, he can rephrase the problem. Once everyone has stated their viewpoint folks can begin to see the commonalities, or lack thereof.
  1. Rephrase the Problem. In the example above, let’s say Joe instead asks the group to figure out “ways to make people’s jobs easier.”  He’s likely to get a lot more suggestions. Similarly “How can we increase sales?” is very different than “In what ways can we provide more benefit to the consumer?”  They are phrased from different perspectives. Also, the latter phrasing suggests there are a multitude of possibilities, rather than one right answer. Words carry meaning and play a major role in how we perceive a problem.
  1. Get a working definition of your problem. Once you’ve clarified perceptions the next step is to say what it is and what it isn’t. If your car stalls, you can’t jump to the conclusion it’s an engine problem.  Similarly, if you start working on “Where to build a new school” you’ll rule out possibilities you might have explored if you’d defined the problem as “Where to find new classroom space.” Building excludes other possibilities like renting or converting existing space. You don’t want to narrow the problem prematurely.
  1. Make the problem engaging. “Increasing sales” is boring.  “How can we wow our customers?” is challenging. “How to create a Facebook page?” is boring. “How can we engage meaningfully with our constituents?” is exciting. Plus, it doesn’t close off other solutions (maybe Facebook is not the only answer). If it’s fun, it’s like a game; folks will want to play.
What’s your tip to assure you’re solving the right problem?
Have you found a way to make problem solving engaging? 

Part II will explore 5 more keys to solving the correct problem,
 but perhaps there are even more.  Please share!

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  1. You've put together a nice post. And, you're quite correct; effective problem solving really does begin with clearly defining the problem. While this might seem like common sense, as you've pointed out, it's not necessarily common practice.

    I would just add that it is also important to be in the right frame of mind when problem solving. Adopting a siege or panic mentality won't do anyone any good. Having a relaxed mind, on the other hand, will lead to more creative solutions.

    So, when about to tackle a real problem, it's usually a good idea to step back for a bit. Depending on the urgency of the situation, that might involve a delay for a cup of coffee, a short walk, or even a meditation session. Other options include tackling the problem the next morning when you're rested and relaxed. Or, you might tackle the problem over a glass (no, not the whole bottle) of wine; there's actually a study that supports the idea.

    Unfortunately, problems often arise when least convenient. So, it's a good idea to always be prepared for the unexpected. That means we need to take proper care of ourselves. In one of my recent blog posts (http://wp.me/p1h0KY-kS), I suggest one way we can take care of ourselves is by taking vacations. We're much better problem solvers after a vacation than when we're a frazzled stressed out mess in desperate need of one.

    You also might want to check-out my own problem-solving post: "Problems: What Separates the Good Guys from the Bad?" (https://michaelrosensays.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/problems-what-separates-the-good-guys-from-the-bad/)

  2. Thanks Michael. Your post is excellent as well, and I've left you a comment. It definitely makes sense to approach problem solving with a clear head and a relaxed frame of mind (one of the reasons problem solving retreats are highly recommended). I appreciate your reading/commenting. :-)

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