Problem Defining and Problem Solving
by Rick Brenner
Sometimes problem-solving sessions are difficult because we get started solving a problem before we know what problem we're solving. Understanding the connection between stakeholders, problem solving, and problem defining can reduce conflict and produce better solutions.
The three of them piled out of the taxi and ran through the rain across the plaza, past the Jersey barriers, to the revolving doors. Hal and Sam let Julie go inside first. Then, highly motivated by the now-pelting rain, Hal and Sam crammed themselves into the next chamber of the doors, and exploded out into the lobby, not quite drenched.
"Used to be a canopy here," said Hal. "They took it out when they put in the Jersey barriers. Must be a security thing."
Sam was wet and fuming: "There has to be a drier way to increase security."
Sam might be right. It's likely that when the security staff addressed the problem of enhancing security, they gave relatively more importance to security considerations than to the inconvenience of building users in inclement weather. They defined the problem they were solving, and (perhaps) failed to account for the problems their solution generated for some stakeholders.
It's a common pattern. Here are some guidelines for defining and solving problems.
- Definition and solution are in a dance
- Definition and solution aren't sequential — they dance together. Progress on solutions can expose unanticipated issues. Even partial solutions can produce discoveries that can actually change what people perceive to be the problem.
- Solution and stakeholders are in a dance
- Any solution can create new problems and/or new stakeholders. Anticipate who these new people might be, and work with them now, despite the added cost. Early involvement is preferable, because involvement after deployment of the solution might be even more expensive.
- Stakeholders and definition are in a dance
- Partial solutions expose new Exploring any one of
Definition, Solution, and
Stakeholders can reveal
new elements of
the other twostakeholders with new insights and perceptions, and they can change the problem definition. This link completes a cycle involving Definition, Solution, and Stakeholders. Their dance can be confusing, but it's more confusing to believe that you have a definition and a solution when you don't. Keep going around the loop until things stabilize.
- Rarely is there a "best" way
- Most of the problems we deal with have no "best" solution. Yet, we spend much of our energy searching for the best solution, even when nobody actually told us to find the best solution. And even if a best solution does exist, the cost of finding it (and proving that we've done so) can be prohibitive. Good enough usually is.
- Optimality requires a metric
- If you're expected to find the "best" solution, be certain that you have a well-defined metric that provides unambiguous comparisons. Without one, "best" has no concrete meaning, and you actually have two problems instead of one. You have to find both a metric and a solution.
Applying these guidelines involves not only the problem you're trying to solve, but also addressing problems in your problem solving process. Beware: tackling both at once can be tricky. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness
- High Falutin' Goofy Talk
- Business speech and business writing are sometimes little more than high falutin' goofy talk, filled with pretentious, overused images and puff phrases of unknown meaning. Here are some phrases that are so common that we barely notice them.
- The Shower Effect: Sudden Insights
- Ever have a brilliant insight, a forehead-slapping moment? You think, "Now I get it!" or "Why didn't I think of this before?" What causes these moments? How can we make them happen sooner?
- The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
- You Might Be Stressed If...
- A little stress once in a while keeps us sharp, but chronic intense stress shortens lives. Stress can build gradually, out of our awareness. Here are some indicators of chronic intense stress.
- How to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
- When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- MITRE, in Bedford, MA: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Managing Virtual Meetings for Real Results
- Leading or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: