Many of us who started our professional lives in a problem solving role have become experts at diving in and developing (and delivering) elegant solutions when we think we see a problem brewing.  Unfortunately too often our tendency to “problem solve” prevents us from successfully defining the problem in the first place.  Our comfort zone is in the solution, but as a leader our key value is in asking the questions necessary to understand the problem.

“Good questions outrank easy answers.” -Paul Samuelson

For many leaders the idea of stopping to ask questions before solving a problem is akin to watching your house burn down trying to figure out what started the fire rather than just using the fire hose that’s lying in front of you.  Unfortunately the reality is that very few problems are as urgent as a burning house.

The primary problem with solution driven leaders is Abraham Maslow‘s Law of the Instrument:

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

If you’re a problem solver and your background is in software development, odds are that 9 out of 10 solutions you come up with to solve the problems you see will involve software development.  If you’re a marketer you can probably solve the problem with more market research data or a campaign.  HR background?  Sounds like an employee development opportunity to me.

As a leader it’s our job to step out of our comfort zones and challenge our teams to really understand the problem before we dive in to create solutions.  Software, marketing campaigns, and employee development are all great solutions, but unless you understand WHAT you’re solving and WHY it needs solving then your solution is as likely to fail miserably as provide any relief to the problem at hand.

In other words, when your fist instinct is that you have a “nail” problem, before you pull out the hammer and start swinging you should first check for threads (is it a nail?) and then determine if it needs to be hammered in at all (is it there to hold up a picture?).

Before you dive into a solution be sure you can answer the following:

WHAT

  1. What are the symptoms that you have identified?
  2. Who are the stakeholders affected by the symptoms?
  3. What are the systems/platforms/processes where the symptoms are occurring?
  4. Are there any other symptoms happening in the same area that don’t appear related?
  5. Are they related?
  6. Based on everything you now understand – What is your PROBLEM STATEMENT?

WHY

  1. Take a look at your problem statement and validate that it is actually a PROBLEM STATEMENT and not a SOLUTION STATEMENT.  Your problem statement should not presuppose any solution.  If it does then you haven’t gone far enough in your WHAT analysis.  Ironically the best way to get the WHAT right is to start with a WHY.  Ask yourself and your team WHY the problem you’ve defined needs to be solved.  If you can’t answer the first WHY then go back and repeat your WHAT.
  2. Is the problem outlined in your problem statement permanent or temporary?  If it’s a temporary problem then you need to think carefully about whether it needs a solution.  Remember that every hour or dollar you spend on solving this temporary problem is an hour and dollar that you could be spending on something else.  Don’t spend money that could be better spent elsewhere to analyze or solve a problem that will go away on it’s own.
  3. Can you quantify the impacts of your problem statement?  (Dollars saved/lost, time saved/lost, something measurable).  If you can’t quantify the impacts either you don’t have a real problem or the problem doesn’t need to be solved.

If you take the time to get clear on WHAT the problem is and WHY it needs to be solved BEFORE you start problem solving you’ll be amazed at the amount of time and money you’ll save in resolving them.  More often than not you may find out that not only is your house NOT on fire, but that the sulfur smell that alerted you to a problem was actually just the residue of a match that has already gone out on its own.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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