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:
- Email Antics: Part III
- Nearly everyone complains that email is a time waster. Yet much of the problem results from our own actions. Here's Part III of a little catalog of things we do that help waste our time.
- Twenty-Three Thoughts
- Sometimes we get so focused on the immediate problem that we lose sight of the larger questions. Here are twenty-three thoughts to help you focus on what really counts.
- Seven Ways to Get Nowhere
- Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
- Why Do Business Fads Form?
- The rise of a business fad is due to the actions of both its advocates and adopters. Understanding the interplay between them is essential for successful resistance.
- Confirmation Bias: Workplace Consequences Part II
- We continue our exploration of confirmation bias. In this Part II, we explore its effects in management processes.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Problem Solving and Creativity and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 4: Virtual Trips to Abilene
- One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily. Available here and by RSS on March 4.
- And on March 11: Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
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
- Decision-Making for Team Leaders
- Effective group decision-making requires far more than knowing how to organize a discussion or take a vote. This program is designed for both new and experienced team leaders or team sponsors, managers, project managers, portfolio managers, program managers, and executives and general managers. It is especially valuable to people who work in organizations that confront fluid environments, in which decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty. 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's an upcoming date for this program:
- Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
- Mastery of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Managing in Fluid Environments
- Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they're subject to continual change. We never know what's coming next. In such environments, managing — teams, projects, groups, departments, or the enterprise — often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. It's a nerve-wracking existence. This program provides numerous tools that help managers who work in fluid environments. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- 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: