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August 3, 2005 Volume 5, Issue 31
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Problem Defining and Problem Solving


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 two
stakeholders 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Bonuses  Next Issue
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Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.Coming November 25: Suppressing Dissent: Part I
In some groups, disagreeing with the majority, or disagreeing with the Leader, can be a personally expensive act. Here is Part I of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate dissent. Available here and by RSS on November 25.
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Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context. Available here and by RSS on December 2.

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