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The Problem with Problems…and what to do about it
by Rod Johnson

Do you have a couple problems on your desk, waiting for a decision? Have you recently come face-to-face with a problem that you’ve been avoiding – just hoping it would go away? Are you currently sitting on a committee working on a problem, and no viable solution appears evident? Can you imagine what it felt like when Jim Lovell transmitted these famous words to NASA:

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Guess what? On any given day you may be on the receiving end of a “we have a problem” transmission. And the conversation that results is critically important because the problems an organization decides to unravel and the velocity with which they are identified and solved determines what is really important. Because, companies and leaders select the types of problems they choose to pay attention to – “What is really important here is...”

Over the years as a business consultant, I’ve uncovered a couple of roadblocks standing in the way of effective problem solving. These being:

• People assume the position that the problem will probably take care of itself if I give it enough time. Challenge: Problems rarely just go away, they either grow in intensity or they simply morph into a more difficult problem.

• People work towards a solution too quickly, and don’t identify the true problem that is facing them. Challenge: Poor problem solving is like a band aid; it makes us feel good, but doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.

• Problems improperly solved or problems left unresolved will often result in even more serious problems and that is one of “the problems with problems.” Challenge: Good and expedient problem solving skills must be a core competency of every business.

• Too often, people lack the critical thinking skills essential to good problem solving. Challenge: Any organization is only as good as its weakest link.

Too often, people assume that the problem is the problem, which may be totally incorrect. In fact, the problem you’re presented and the real problem are rarely the same. When Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell said, “We have a problem – we had an explosion,” the explosion was a symptom – a part of the equation – not necessarily the problem. The real problem they needed to solve was. “How do we get the Apollo 13 crew back to Earth safely?” And they in turn were faced with identifying and solving numerous problems along the path before they could reach success.

Management consultant Pat Murray states, “The solution defines the problem, not the other way around.” My varied years of problem solving experience confirm that Pat is dead on correct. Too often, we focus most of our attention on finding a solution. To the contrary, good problem solving is much more about identifying the real problem than it is about finding a solution. To do this, you must spend more time up front asking the right questions, which will lead you to better and more profitable solutions.

Here are 6 steps to better problem solving:

1. Recognize there is a problem: It’s easy to be blind to problems by ignoring the obvious.

2. Define the problem: Albert Einstein once said, “The problem defined is a problem half solved.”

3. Identify the real problem: As mentioned before, the problem we are presented and the real problem are often quite different.

4. Understand the problem: Take the time and effort to challenge your internal assumptions.

5. Work on how to eliminate the problem: Be aware that problem creep can and does occur. Work diligently to keep it as simple as possible, yet be true to the real problem at hand.

6. Generate problem solution ideas: Every once in a while a single solution exists, however, most of the time multiple solutions surface. Weigh each on its own merit and choose the one that optimizes the desired business outcome.

(Adapted from Andy Eclund’s “Six Steps-rules to solve problems creatively” )

The problem with problems is that many organizations find problem solving activities to be…well, problematic. Identifying a problem and then reaching a workable/optimal solution is challenging, if not fleeting. Yet this business skill is mission critical – it must be a core competency if you are to survive. Think about it. And when someone walks up to you and says, “I have a problem,” hesitate before going into your bag of tricks and reaching for a solution. Instead, ask yourself, “Are the problem I’m being asked to solve and the real problem one and the same?”

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