You know when you have a problem because you want something to be different than it is now. However, you might be wrong about what the real problem is and end up wasting time, energy and money on something that does not solve the actual problem.
The critical foundational step of problem solving is identifying the core problem. Before gathering information and looking for solutions, you need a clear definition of the problem so that your other efforts are focused in the right direction. If you are in an organizational setting, be sure the problem definition has been agreed to by all the decision makers (problem solvers).
Here is an example of a potentially misidentified problem. Imagine you discover that a lot of your customers complain because they can’t get the help they need when they call because the wait time on your help line is long and insufferable.
Immediately you perceive the problem as being not enough people to staff the call center. The obvious solution to that problem is to hire more staff. The actual problem is that you have a mismatch between calls and staff. Now, the problem may be staff, but it may instead be that you are getting too many calls because of product issues. Now you have a different problem to solve.
There are several cognitive biases that prevent us from accurately defining a problem. For example, there is the "what-you-see-is-all-there-is" (WYSIATI) phenomenon where we believe that the obvious problem we see is the actual problem and don’t consider that there may be bigger hidden problems and causes.
We also have a subconscious drive to conserve energy, which can keep us from exploring other problem definitions or sources because it takes more energy to do that than to go with the problem we already identified.
One reason we often fail at problem solving is that we dive into problems before we have fully defined them because it feels like we are making progress. However, that progress is just an illusion.
Decision expert, Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, says that solving the right problem not only saves resources but allows you to prevent problems from recurring again in the future.
Look up and look down
To effectively identify the problem, first “look up” to see if there is a bigger problem causing the symptom you’ve identified. Addressing the cause gives you a much better chance of solving the problem than addressing the symptom. Then “look down” to see what other problems may be the result of the same cause. Then craft your solution(s) to address those as well.
Here are some questions to ask to help you identify the problem:
- Are you solving a symptom or a cause?
- Is the symptom part of a bigger problem?
- How do you know it is a problem? Is the data telling you it’s a problem accurate?
- What does a good solution look like?
- What will happen if it doesn’t get solved?
- Are the causes within your control? If not, are there steps you can take to mitigate it?
- If you can’t solve the problem within your current strategy, can you remove it by changing strategies?
Parrish recommends not looking at solutions at the same time that you are identifying the problem. Have a separate meeting to define the problem before jumping into problem-solving mode.
Remember this - In a world where few people take the time to thoroughly define problems and address causes, you can set yourself apart simply by being thoughtful and deliberate in your pursuit of finding the right problem.
Think well - live well.
- Steve Haffner, mind performance strategist
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