Business Bites: Problem? Don’t blame me (Part 2)

Nick Walsh FBDO
ABDO sector skills development officer

“If I were given an hour in which to do a problem upon which my life depended, I would spend 40 minutes studying it, 15 minutes reviewing it and five minutes solving it,” Albert Einstein

In part one of this article, we looked at blame as an issue in problem solving. In part two, we look further at the problem solving process.

How do we ask the right questions to ensure that we solve the problem at hand and don’t go down the wrong path, or simply solve a minor part of the problem rather than the problem as a whole?

In their Harvard Business Review article, Dwayne Spradlin asks: ‘Are you solving the right problem?’. Their article considers the various stages that should be included in a problem-solving process, as outlined below.

What is the basic need?

This is the essential problem, stated clearly and concisely. It is important at this stage to focus on the need that’s at the heart of the problem instead of jumping to a solution. Defining the scope is also important.

What is the desired outcome?

Answering this question requires understanding the perspectives of customers and other beneficiaries. Avoid the temptation to favour a particular solution or approach. This question should be addressed qualitatively and quantitatively whenever possible. A high-level but SMART goal can be helpful at this stage.

Who stands to benefit and why?

Answering this question compels a business to identify all potential customers and stakeholders. If the problem you want to solve is industry-wide, it’s crucial to understand why the market has failed to address it.

Is the effort aligned with your strategy?

In other words, will satisfying the need serve the business’s strategic goals? It is not unusual for a business to be working on problems that are no longer in sync with its strategy or mission. In that case, the problem should be reconsidered. In addition, you should consider whether the problem fits with your business’s priorities.

What are the desired benefits for the company, and how will you measure them?

The desired outcome could be to reach a revenue target, attain a certain market share, or achieve specific time improvements. SMART goals will help to ensure that measurement is appropriate.

How will we ensure that a solution is implemented?

Someone in the business must be responsible for carrying it out. It is important at this stage to initiate a high-level conversation in the business about the resources a solution might require. This can seem premature – after all, you’re still defining the problem, and the field of possible solutions could be very large – but it’s actually not too early to begin exploring what resources your business is willing (and able) to devote to evaluating solutions and then implementing the best one. The result of such a discussion might be that some constraints on resourcing must be built into the problem statement.

What approaches have we tried?

Examining past efforts to find a solution can save time and resources and generate highly innovative thinking. The aim here is to find solutions that might already exist in your organisation and identify those that have been disproved. By answering this question, you can avoid reinventing the wheel or going down a dead end.

What have others tried?

Learn from others successes and failures. This again could find solutions that might already exist and identify those that have been disproved

What are the internal and external constraints on implementing a solution?

Now that you have a better idea of what you want to accomplish, it’s time to revisit the issue of resources and organisational commitment: do you have the necessary support for soliciting and then evaluating possible solutions? Are you sure that you can obtain the funding and the people to implement the most promising one? External constraints are just as important to evaluate: are there laws and regulations to be considered?

Answering these questions may require consultation with various stakeholders and experts.

Write the problem statement

Here are some questions that can help you develop a thorough problem statement:
• Is the problem actually many problems?
• What requirements must a solution meet?
• Which problem solvers should we engage?
• What information and language (specific but not overly technical) should the problem statement include?

In summary

• Keep an eye on the bigger picture
• Know when to involve others
• Avoid blame: we are where we are, deal with it
• Understand your limits