Beware of a Half-Truth; It May Be the Wrong Half
If we solve the wrong problem, then who cares? In Part I we talked about taking a positive attitude towards the endeavor of solving problems: (1) clarifying that problems aren’t ‘bad’ and there’s no one right way to solve them; (2) people can have different perceptions of the same issue; (3) problems are often in the eye of the beholder; perception matters; (4) problems can be larger and smaller than we think, and (5) problems must be stated in ways that make them engaging to work on. In Part II we’ll look at steps (6) – (10) to assure that we describe our problem sufficiently to assure we solve the right problem.
- Make sure it’s a problem that can be solved by your group. If the right people are not involved than you need to wait to include those folks before continuing. You can’t solve someone else’s problem.
- Expose and challenge assumptions. If we jumped to the conclusion we need to build a new school, we may have made this leap based on a number of things we’ve assumed. Make a list (e.g., there is no available space to convert to classes; it’s too expensive to convert space; parents wouldn’t be happy with rented space; we have to expand the size of the school, etc.); then do a reality test. Assumptions blind us to other causes and innovative solutions.
- State the problem as a question. This is a trick to assure, again, that we’re not jumping to conclusions. For example, “Hiring two more assistants” is not a problem but a solution to some other problem. Our brains love questions and will jump to answer them (just don’t make it a question with a “yes/no” answer).
- Chunk up. Problems are usually pieces of larger problems. If you feel you may be looking at the problem too narrowly, ask what the intention is behind hiring two more assistants. Is there really too much work? Or are folks not working smart? Or are some of the tasks currently on people’s plates things that can be eliminated? Take care that you’re not just addressing symptoms rather than root causes of a larger problem.
- Chunk down. Problems are also composed of smaller problems. Why is it a problem to hire two assistants? Not a high enough salary? Looking for the wrong skills? No one has time to do interviews? Sometimes you have to solve smaller problems separately before you can adequately address the larger problem.
- Reverse the problem statement. This is a trick that helps us find obvious solutions that may be eluding us. “How can we find more donors?” may seem too open-ended. We’ll tend to think of all sorts of things for other people to do (e.g., find names on other lists; create a better website to get more exposure; have a special event). But if we ask “How can we assure we get fewer donors?” then the solution: “Make less contacts/visits” becomes obvious. The reverse? Make more visits! Try this when you’re stuck.
- Gather facts. What questions need to be answered to build a complete picture of the problem? Who, what, when, where, why, how big, how much, etc. If you have sub-problems you must solve those first. And once you’ve made this explicit, folks will be willing to work on the smaller chunks knowing they’ll ultimately get to the other pieces. One technique is to SCAMPER the problem. Other excellent techni
ques include “Is/Is Not” and “Force Field Analysis” . Is the problem really “poor communication”? Or is it “too many emails,” “too many meetings,” “lack of positive feedback,” “not effectively using internal channels,” “communicating through push rather than pull” or all of the above? The answers to these sub-questions may be easier to find. John Dewey is credited with saying that a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.
Once you know where you’re going, and your cart is no longer before your horse, go ahead and hitch up your cart. Now you’re ready for the road, pointed in the right direction and much more apt to get to where you want to go. In How To Run a Problem Solving Meeting Seth Godin sets forth a number of excellent guidelines. Check ’em out!