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Defining the Problem

Defining the Problem

Einstein once said that if he had an hour to save the world, he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and five minutes solving it. 

This is an important concept for managers and organizational leaders.  When a problem situation is staring us in the face, it can feel counterproductive to slow down and study it.  We want to take action, to fix the problem as soon as possible.  But jumping in too soon can spell trouble for a long-term solution.  

No two companies are alike, and neither are their situations or environments.   John Kotter, the dean of change management theory, has written that the first step in good organizational change is to assess the company’s situation.  One-size-fits–all approaches aren’t likely to work.  To be effective, change processes have to account for the unique elements of an organization at a given point in time.

In his foundational article, “Choosing Strategies for Change,” Kotter and co-author Leonard Schlesinger cautioned managers not to assume they understand their companies’ needs.  Instead, the best change projects will allow ample time for assessment.   

First, managers should look at what the resistance will be.  They should ask where it will come from, and from whom.  They should also look at their own assumptions about the resistance.  For example, change leaders might expect that engineers will resist change because they tend not to trust management.  Depending on situation, though, the engineers in a particular company might be the first to get on board.    

It’s also important for managers to analyze how urgent the problems are.  Will the company face huge losses in the near future if it doesn’t take immediate action to change?  Or can it afford a slower, more conservative approach—which generally works better for getting people behind a change. 

By taking time to assess an organization’s situation and needs thoroughly, change leaders can avoid pitfalls later and increase the chances of successful change.  

To see Kotter’s full article, click here (PDF).

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