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
- When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds
- In tough negotiations, when attempts to resolve differences have failed, we sometimes conclude that "they've made up their minds," but other explanations abound. Keeping an open mind about why other people seem to have closed theirs can help us find a resolution.
- Poverty of Choice by Choice
- Sometimes our own desire not to have choices prevents us from finding creative solutions. Life can be simpler (if less rich) when we have no choices to make. Why do we accept the same tired solutions, and how can we tell when we're doing it?
- Working Journals
- Keeping a journal about your work can change how you work. You can record why you did what you did, and why you didn't do what you didn't. You can record what you saw and what you only thought you saw. And when you read the older entries, you can see patterns you might never have noticed any other way.
- Finding Work in Tough Times: Marketing
- We aren't accustomed to thinking of finding work in tough times as a marketing problem, but it helps. Here are some suggestions for applying marketing principles to finding work in tough times.
- Management Debt: Part II
- As with technical debt, we incur management debt when we make choices that carry with them recurring costs. How can we quantify management debt?
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 me 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
- Person-to-Person Communication for Project Managers
- When we talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program you'll learn a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. 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 are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Download to
your calendarHoliday Inn Mt. Kisco, One Holiday Inn Drive, Mt. Kisco, NY 10549: April 5, Professional Development Day, Westchester Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Download to
your calendarPortland Country Club, 11 Foreside Road, Falmouth, ME 04105: June 19, Monthly Meeting, Maine Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- 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:
- Organizational Politics for People Who Hate Politics
- Have you ever felt powerless to implement an important new idea? Have you ever been "blind-sided" at a meeting? Have you ever lost two good employees because you could find no way to keep them from attacking each other? These are some of the issues of organizational politics. Many of us have become enmeshed in them from time to time, but we've also known some people who seem to be able to engage and prosper. How is that done? We'll inventory the challenges of organizational politics, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees learn concrete techniques for dealing with the problems that arise in workplace politics, while keeping their integrity intact. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- 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 organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- New York Marriott Downtown, 85 West Street at Albany Street, New York, NY 10006: May 22, Breakfast Seminar, IT Metrics and Productivity Institute Conference Series. Register now.
- Toronto Marriott Downtown Eaton Centre Hotel, 525 Bay Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5G2L2: June 5, Breakfast Seminar, IT Metrics and Productivity Institute Conference Series.
- Boston Marriott Newton, 2345 Commonwealth Avenue, Newton, MA 02466: June 26, Breakfast Seminar, IT Metrics and Productivity Institute Conference Series.