Are you addressing the right problem?

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Every day most of us encounter challenges we have to meet and problems we have to solve. There are a range of tools available to us to do that, however with the relentless business pace and the implicit need for managers to have a strong bias for action, managers can fall into the trap of going from problem straight into solution with stopping long enough to fully consider their situation to determine what the problem is and what is actually fact verses opinion and assumption.

What’s more, many of the popular problem solving techniques lend themselves to encouraging managers to go deeper into exploring the problem they have defined without stopping long enough to actually determine “is this the problem we have to resolve or do we need to invest more time to identify the real problem and refine it by looking at the problem through another lens?”.

Refining and reconsidering the problem may result in taking the same or a different approach to resolving the problem.

It starts with investing time to consider the problem from different angles and to derive a range of views which will almost certainly involve enlisting the views of others, and depending on the complexity of the problem, you may even want to do research with a range of audiences in order to reach an agreed and defined statement of the problem. Core in having reached this point is to record it in some form e.g. in writing.

Next, by brainstorming and being careful not to dismiss the ‘whacky’ and ‘way out’, you move to defining solution options. Whilst you may not use the ‘whacky’ and ‘way out’ they may lead to more plausible solutions. In brainstorming your options be willing to broaden your focus, redirect your focus, and even flip the problem 180 degrees.

When you believe you have arrived at the best solution option ask “what’s missing?” and are there any circumstances under which the problem would not occur.

One my favourite examples of refining the problem using the approaches I have shared to this point belongs to Edward de Bono of Six Hats fame. About 10 years ago when de Bono was flavour of the month I went one of his workshops where he shared his solution to slow moving elevators which had been defined as a major problem by the building managers in a recently completed building.

As he told his story a number of alternative options to this problem had been suggested. Options included:

  • Replace the existing motors with more powerful motors
  • Stagger people’s working hours and lunch breaks
  • Add an additional elevator shaft in the core of the building
  • Have some lifts travel express to higher levels before stopping
  • Have doors open and close faster

De Bono pondered these options and decided to refine the problem by ignoring the building managers’ definition and instead talked to the people who used the elevators daily. The way they defined the problem was they were annoyed by having to wait so long for elevators to arrive. de Bono’s solution was to install mirrors around the entrance to all elevators. People’s attention was immediately diverted as they became preoccupied with looking at themselves in the mirrors and as a consequence they no longer focused on the elevators.

I believe it was Albert Einstein who said “I would rather spend 55 minutes defining and refining the problem and five minutes on developing a solution.”


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