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
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See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming September 2: That Was a Yes-or-No Question: Part II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
- And on September 9: Holding Back: Part I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior? Available here and by RSS on September 9.
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