March 17

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Why we always restate the problem

What problem are we trying to solve?

This is one of my favorite questions, and for good reason. It’s useful when working to pinpoint focus.

This simple question is equally useful for bringing people back to focus — especially when we need to solve the right problem to deliver value faster.

I see a lot of leaders presume others see the problem the same way they do.

When a director asks, “Does everyone understand the problem?” few people feel comfortable admitting they don’t. It leads to a friction, wasted work, rework and a lot of frustration.

Besides, things always change.

When you bring people together to solve a problem, start by restating the problem and:

  1. Offer proof or evidence of the problem
  2. Review — and add to — the costs and consequences to clarify what’s at stake
  3. Give people the context they need – ideally with visuals or a story or both – to put the problem in perspective

With preparation and practice, restating the problem to get everyone on the same page takes five minutes or a little longer with discussion. Once grounded on the problem, remind people of the ideal and acceptable outcomes to set the bounds for the solution.

Pro tip: the ideal outcome is the inverse of the problem – which is not the solution, especially in technical situations.

Now ask, “What changed?”

Things always change. Probe for changes in key areas, including:

  • Priority (that means the value or potential value shifted)
  • Evidence, experience, and insights of the team
  • Approaches and solutions
  • Environmental considerations (company and industry changes)

Restating the problem and asking for changes is a powerful way to reach common understanding and focus energy on the actions to deliver value faster.

Take this step at the start of meetings, gatherings, briefings, and you’ll save yourself a lot of fiction; the friction that erodes value, destroys trust, and burns people out. Even when you think the problem is the same and everyone “understands” because reality suggests otherwise.

A few minutes to restate and recalibrate is all it takes to solve the right problems and deliver value faster.


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