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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Apr 13, 2019


The problem with solving problems is that we often rush towards solutions without spending enough time clearly identifying the challenge we’re facing. In this episode we explore the power of a well crafted problem statement.



Welcome to episode 33 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at the problem with solving problems - that we often rush towards solutions without spending enough time clearly identifying the challenge we’re facing.

There’s a quote typically attributed to Albert Einstein that goes along the lines of “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” Now, there’s not great evidence that Einstein ever uttered those words, but there is still a great deal of truth in them. We often rush into solution mode when we’ve only partially, or even incorrectly, identified the problem we’re trying to solve.

I’ve spent around half of my career working in management consulting focusing on complex problems and solutions. Over that time I lost count of the number of times I heard the classic attempted put down - “consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time, then charge you for it”. Of course, if you ask a consultant to tell you the time while you’re wearing a watch, then maybe the consultant isn’t the problem. Either way, it highlights that organisations often outsource solution generation, and are then frustrated when the expensive solutions don’t quite hit the mark. I believe this is often because the problem isn’t clearly and accurately identified, so people end up frantically working towards solving the wrong problem. Once the problem is clear, organisations are usually pretty good at developing and implementing solutions.

I shared an example in the last episode of a person who inherited a task to prepare a series of reports. Preparing all of these reports was arduous and took 8 hours to complete - it was a real problem for him as he struggled to get the rest of his work completed in the rest of the week. He initially identified the problem as “these reports take too long to complete”, and so came up with and implemented improvements that meant he could prepare the reports in just four hours. But there was a deeper question that needed answering - “why are these reports needed?” It turned out people weren’t actually using the reports - no one really needed the reports to be generated, and so he took an eight hour task and reduced it to zero. The problem to explore was around the need for the reports, not the efficiency of report production.

It’s hard to identify the real problem when you’re in the middle of it, but using a clear structure and approach can help. It might even save you from using a consultant or, at least, make your investment in an external consultant more valuable.

We need to start by trying to identify the root cause of the problem. I’ve talked about using the “5 whys” approach in episode 20 - repeatedly asking the question “why?” to step back towards the root cause.

Once we think we’re close to the root cause, a structured problem statement can help. It provides some rigour around identifying the problem and its impact, while also making it easier to communicate the problem to others, and assess the value of various proposed solutions.

One simple structure for a problem statement includes four elements:

  1. Ideal scenario – what it would be like if this problem didn’t exist
  2. Current situation – what it is currently like - the current reality
  3. Consequences – the implications for this audience if we do nothing - can help build momentum towards change
  4. Focus – the areas we will explore to solve the problem

Here’s an example of applying that approach to a business that’s struggling to have sufficient stock in stores.

  • Ideal - We want our customers to be able to easily purchase our products with an emphasis on experience and convenience.
  • Current - Our most loyal customers are complaining that their local stores are often out of stock of our most popular products, so they’re forced to phone ahead or drive around to other stores looking for stock.
  • Consequences - We are losing sales and frustrating our customers, leaving ourselves open to them switching to competitor products.
  • Focus - To address this problem, we are going to explore three elements. The first being the reliability of transport of product from our warehouse to stores. The second - building our capacity to track current stock levels at stores. And thirdly, explore our ability to provide stock to customers directly via a new home delivery channel.

Now it’s important to also be responsive. Sometimes as we are seeking to solve the problem, we come across further information which may further clarify the problem. You can always refine the problem statement to reflect this new information.