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A Good Problem Statement Goes a Long Way

May 16, 2019
Spend more time on defining what you’re trying to solve, and get better results.

A problem well put is half-solved. This statement, attributed to philosopher John Dewey, highlights the value of a good problem statement. Even if you’re not using a structured problem-solving method, the time invested in framing the problem is rarely wasted effort.     

Almost every time I coach a team on their problem statement, we spend four times the amount of time on it than they expected, and the problem statement always changes by the time we’re done.

A problem statement is like a compass. It helps you set the direction in which all of your endeavors will follow. If you set the direction inaccurately, your efforts will take you in the wrong direction.

The following three actions will improve your efforts.

1. Define what type of problem it is. In my experience, most problems fit into one of three categories.

You don’t have a standard. If that’s the case, then create one. Almost every process has two primary ingredients: Who is going to do it and how to do it.

You didn’t follow the standard.  The majority of the time, there is a barrier to following the standard. Maybe there wasn’t the required time, or resources, or skill, or information ... the point is, you must solve why the standard wasn’t followed.

The standard isn’t effective. You have a standard and you follow it, but you still don’t achieve the result desired. Then you must work to improve the standard itself. Most problem-solving training focuses on this type of problem, and even assumes that this is the situation, but for many organizations, it is the least common of the three types.

2. View the problem from multiple perspectives. Most problems are experienced by more than one person or function. There is usually an assumption that when everyone agrees there is a problem, we also experience it in the same way. So one party will proceed under the assumption that everyone sees the problem as they do, but that is a false assumption.

It is important to socialize a problem statement, and modify it to incorporate other perspectives. As you add perspectives, the picture of the problem will become more complete.

I believe all perspectives on problems are two things. First, they are valid. Second, they are incomplete. It is certainly true that there are some simply invalid perspectives, but determining which views are invalid is far less productive than making efforts to combine multiple perspectives into a more comprehensive view.

3. Consider how you will validate. One of the most frequent failure modes in problem-solving is assuming that the solution we determined is correct. Effective problem-solving, however, validates that the solution created truly solves the problem. If done at all, this is usually first considered at the very end of the process, after the solution is already implemented. Validation of the solution can prove difficult, and since there is so much sunk cost in creating the solution, the desire to declare success and move on can be overwhelming.

Instead, determine how you will validate the effectiveness of the solution while developing the problem statement. This provides two benefits. First, it allows you to create an effective means of validation before you’ve invested your energy. Second, by considering how you would validate the solution, you often end up clarifying the problem statement. Vague problem statements, and imagined problem statements, immediately start to fade way.

I worked with a leader of a very large organization who believed this was the single most important behavior to adopt. No discussion could occur with this leader without first defining the problem. It was so well understood that it was joked about, yet behavior changed, and it transformed the organization.

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