Why problems defined in terms of solutions decrease value and increase risk

We live in a world that demands action.

Often action trumps results. The mere appearance of solving problems becomes more important than actually finding and addressing the right problems.

This even happens to people with the best of intentions.

Pressed for time, the search for solution takes precedence over defining the problem. When a suitable approach is discovered, the problem is hastily framed in terms of the solution. That’s if the problem is defined at all. Many times, it’s skipped in favor of making progress.

Here’s the problem: while it satisfies the need to demonstrate action, this approach increases friction (especially the friction of communication); the result is decreased value and increased risk.

To avoid this trap, cultivate the discipline (and maybe the courage?) necessary to step back, take a breath, and employ different thinking than what led to the current situation.

First consider what’s at stake.

The friction of communication erodes value

Framing a problem in terms of the solution generally places focus on symptoms or fringe elements. “Knowing-of” [link] the solution and challenge allows for the appearance of rapid progress.

Once the program starts, however, the messaging is based on the loose “knowledge of” the problem and the solution. That creates friction in communication. It gets compounded by different and competing understandings of the problem, the solution, and the outcomes.

The friction of communication then leads to division within and across teams as people disengage from the process. While each situation is a bit different, the result is consistent: the friction of communication erodes value.

More than frustration, this leads to costly delays, degraded expectations and features, increased budgets, more people on the project… and in the end, less value. Maybe it’s even negative value.

Why focusing on solutions before problems increases risk

The chief risk is personal: by focusing resources (people, time, and money) on solutions that fail to successfully solve real problems, reputation and credibility are on the line.

When the solution doesn’t produce the expected outcomes — often poorly defined in the first place — how willing are people to trust and act on your recommendations in the future?

Broader, overall risk tends to increase for two reasons:

  1. Attention and effort is diverted from understanding and addressing the real and underlying challenges; they have a tendency to get worse over time
  2. A false sense of security that the “problem is solved;” that increases the effort and energy required to try to convince people to take future action to “solve the same problem”

By the time the real challenge is uncovered, it takes longer and costs more to fix — if it’s not too late.

Here are three questions to start the process

Start with three simple questions. But note that simple to ask doesn’t mean easy to answer. These questions are deceptive.

1. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?

Next time someone presents a solution, pause for a second and then quietly ask, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?”

It’s not a confrontation. It’s an opportunity to understand. If multiple people are involved, ask each of them. Ideally, ask them when they can’t hear other’s answers. Find out what they think.

If the problem is mutually understood and defined clearly, it’ll be evident in the responses. If not, the lack of clarity surfaces. And that means the effort is in jeopardy.

2. Is that the problem we need to solve?

Just because we can solve a problem doesn’t mean we should. The key is to surface, understand, and solve the right problems.

 3. Do the benefits of the solution outweigh the costs?

This question only fits here because people often fixate on solutions first, so they tend to know some of the costs. When that happens, the key is to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem and then the potential benefits of the solution(s).

Minimally, find out if the cost of the solution is more or less than the cost/impact of the problem. Keep in mind that the investment in a project is the price, not the value. Ideally, an effort should increase value to the organization by at least three times the investment (price).

Does the proposed do that? Not knowing the answer is a warning flag.

3 Steps to narrow down the real problems

Sometimes the problem is elusive. Actually, most of the real problems that need to be solved are hidden and overlooked, buried by complexity and bias.

Advance the effort by considering and documenting three elements:

  • Outcomes: as a result of solving this problem, what changes? How will the experience for people be different. Include as much detail and story as reasonable.
  • Define the “as-is process”: the key is simplicity. A whiteboard and markers, paper and pen is all that is needed. Document the current process, as it is. This seems easy until people sit down and try. Allow a bit of extra time.
  • Update to the “desired process”: once people get a chance to “see” the current process, problems come into focus. It also stimulates a natural desire to streamline and improve. Capture those changes, too.

These three steps work to bring people together in a way that provides visibility into how things work. That necessarily means documenting and translating complexity into understanding.

Understanding the problem leads to better solutions

With a mutual understanding of the process and the desired outcomes, the conversation about challenges and strategies to solve them is more productive.

Anything less is unprofessional and risky.

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