Find the real problem in 5 steps
A problem well stated is a half solved
My boss had an idea for a project and a sizeable pot of money to spend on it. I returned from two week’s holiday and was immediately pulled into a meeting with my boss and an external IT systems developer. My boss explained what he wanted delivered and told me to manage the project. He asked for regular updates and the IT developer to start building a solution in a week. My head was spinning. The pressure was so intense, there was no time to get a clear understanding of the problem to be addressed. Six months later, having over spent the budget and failed to deliver anything of value, the project fizzled out. When asked for lessons learnt, not understanding the business problem to be addressed was top of my list.
🔎 Steps to find the real problem
You can increase your problem-solving skills by honing your question-asking ability. – Michael Gelb
The person responsible for delivering a solution should define the problem. Input should be sought from others. Defining the problem includes identifying what is to be achieved and the obstacles in the way. No attempt should be made to address the problem before it has been well defined and agreed by stakeholders.
Steps I follow in defining a problem include:
Gather information: Collect as much data and information as possible about the problem. This may involve observation, discussions and other research.
Ask questions: Explore the problem from different angles by asking probing questions, e.g. the five whys. This helps to identify various perspectives and uncover less obvious factors.
Identify assumptions: Recognise and challenge underlying assumptions that may be influencing my understanding of the problem.
Break down the problem: Divide the problem into smaller, more manageable components. This makes it easier to analyse and identify root causes.
Seek different perspectives: Engage with people who have different experiences and knowledge to gain new insights.
By taking the time to understand the problem, I increase the chance of delivering suitable solutions.
🏆 Benefits of finding the real problem
We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem. – Russell Ackoff
I have been in countless meetings where participants dive straight into brainstorming ideas to address an ill-defined problem. There is no common, shared understanding of the problem. Worse still, I suspect, no individual has a clear understanding. This results in solutions that are poorly suited to the actual problem. Also, much time, resource and goodwill are squandered.
Conversely, the benefits of defining problems clearly include: improved understanding, focused solutions, efficient resource allocation, reduced risk of errors, increased likelihood of success and improved morale.
➕ Other resources
First principles post by Farnham Street
Clear Thinking post by Phil Martin
Deep Work in 5 Steps post by Phil Martin
As Shane Parrish says, The first step to solving any problem is to define it correctly.