How You Define the Problem Determines Whether You Solve It
Have you ever asked yourself why elevators are fitted with mirrors? After elevators became commonplace in high rise buildings, people started complaining that the elevators were too slow. When people complain that something is slow, the obvious solution is to make it faster.
No brainer, right? In the case of slow elevators, making them faster meant installing new elevators, upgrading the motors on existing elevators, or improving the algorithms that ran the elevators. Unfortunately, all of these solutions are insanely expensive.
In a bid to save money, landlords and building administrators sought a new way to look at the problem.
Why were people complaining about elevators being too slow? After all, the elevators were still faster and less tiring than using the stairs.
After looking deeply into the problem, the building administrators realized that the problem was not actually the speed of the elevators, but rather that it was boring and annoying to stand doing nothing while you waited for the elevator to get your floor. The boredom resulted in tenants perceiving the ride as taking longer than it actually did.
With this in mind, the administrators fitted the elevator walls with mirrors.
The mirrors gave people something to do during the elevator ride – checking themselves out, fixing their hair or dressing, or checking out other occupants.
With something to do during the ride, tenants lost track of time and perceived the ride as taking less time. Problem solved.
This is a great example of how the definition of a problem influences the solution. By redefining the problem, building administrators were able to come up with a simple and cost-effective solution, whereas the obvious solution was a lot more expensive.
The world famous genius Albert Einstein once said that given an hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes thinking of a solution.
While this might be an exaggeration, it shows the importance of properly defining a problem before attempting to come up with a solution.
Before solving a problem, you need to put a good amount of resources and thinking into understanding the problem. Only then can you come up with a simple and straightforward answer that allows you to save money, time and resources.
While the importance of understanding a problem before attempting to solve it might be obvious, the truth is that most organizations don’t put a lot of significance in defining the problem. When developing new products, processes and businesses, most organizations are only concerned about getting started and finding a solution.
Organizational teams are often afraid that their superiors will punish them for spending too much time and resources understanding the problem instead of simply getting started. Ironically, this approach leads to more wastage of resources and lost opportunities as the organizations focus on solving the wrong problems.
How many times have you seen organizations spend a lot of time, money and human resource on coming up with a breakthrough process, only to find out that it cannot be implemented because it does not address the right problem?
To avoid this, it is important for businesses and organizations to properly define a problem and ascertain that it is a problem worth solving, before trying to actually solve the problem. Below are some tips on how businesses can do this.
CONFIRM THAT THERE IS A PROBLEM
Before you attempt to develop a solution for a problem, you first need to confirm whether there is actually a problem in the first place.
Very often, businesses set out to solve the wrong problems, problems that are not even there.
To avoid this, you need to go through this step where you try to define the problem in the simplest terms possible.
This step clarifies why it is important to find a solution for the problem. To confirm that you actually have a problem, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
What is the basic problem?
State clearly and concisely the problem you are trying to solve and why you think it is a problem. Define the scope of the problem and explain the impact the problem is having on the organization, the consequences of leaving the problem unsolved, and if possible, the emotional toll of the problem on those involved.
What are you trying to achieve?
What is the desired outcome if you were able to come up with a perfect solution to the problem? This is where most organizations get it wrong. They don’t take enough time trying to understand the desired outcome in the perspective of the customers or other beneficiaries.
For instance, in the case of the slow elevators, many people would conclude that the desired outcome was having faster elevators. However, in the eyes of the tenants, their desired outcome was having to spend less time in boredom, with nothing to do other than stare at the floor.
To figure out the actual desired outcome, you should throw all assumptions out the door and try to examine the situation with the naivety of a child. Ever noticed how children keep asking the question ‘why’? If a child asks why something is the way it is and you give them an answer, they follow with another ‘why?’ You give them another answer and they follow it up with another ‘why?’
This is the approach you should follow when trying to understand the desired outcome. Japanese automaker Toyota is a good example of a company that uses this approach, which they have christened ‘The Five Whys Technique’.
To make this concept easier to understand, let’s assume someone asks you to build a bridge for them. If you assume that their problem is the bridge, you will simply go ahead and build the bridge, which might be a costly and time-consuming affair.
However, if you ask the person what they are trying to achieve with the bridge and they say that they want to get to the other side, this opens a whole lot of possibilities. You could teach them how to swim, build them a raft, use a zip line, or of course, build the bridge.
Asking what the person is trying to achieve helps you to uncover the actual problem and opens up multiple possibilities on how to deal with the problem.
Who will benefit and why?
Of course, if you are trying to solve a problem, there needs to be someone who will benefit once it is solved.
If you find yourself having a hard time determining who stands to benefit once a solution is in place, this might be an indicator that you don’t really have a problem.
The beneficiary also determines how best to solve the problem. What appears to be a great solution for the head of manufacturing might not work for the engineers who work under him.
JUSTIFY WHY A SOLUTION IS NEEDED
In the previous step, you articulated the problem you are trying to solve, but is the problem actually worth solving? In this step, you are now trying to determine whether the organization actually needs to come up with a solution for the problem you identified. To justify the solution, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
Does solving the problem align with our strategy?
Sometimes, you find organizations spending time and resources to come up with solutions, yet solving those problems does not help the company move towards its mission and long term goals in any way.
To avoid this, it is important to consider whether solving the problem is in line with your organization’s strategic goals and priorities.
If it doesn’t, then it makes no sense expending effort to solve the problem.
How does the organization benefit from the solution?
In addition to determining the benefits that the organization will gain from solving the problem, you also need to figure out if there is a way to measure these benefits.
How will you ensure successful implementation of the solution?
In case the perfect solution for the problem is developed – whether the solution is starting a new business, launching a new product, rolling out some new manufacturing technology, etc. – someone will have to be put in charge of implementing the new solution. Implementation of the solution will also need resources. Do you have someone the resources – human, financial and other resources – to successfully implement the solution?
You might be wondering the importance of thinking about resources at a time when you are still defining the problem and have not even explored the whole range of possible solutions.
Considering the amount of resources you can willingly deploy to implementing the solution helps you determine the kind of solutions you are willing to consider.
Developing and implementing some solutions might be a costly affair. Thinking about the resources you require to develop and implement the solution allows for budgetary and other resource-based constraints to be built into the problem statement.
Having ascertained that there is indeed a problem and that it is important for the organization to come up with a solution for the problem, it is now time to take a more detailed look into the problem and capture all the relevant information pertaining to the problem.
PUT THE PROBLEM INTO CONTEXT
Very often, many problems in the business world are rarely new. Your organization might have dealt with a similar problem before, and if not, there are others who might have dealt with the same problem.
Taking the time to understand previous approaches to solving the problem and any constraints to finding or implementing a solution can save your organization a lot of time and resources. To place the problem in its proper context, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
Have we addressed the problem before? How?
If your organization has attempted to address a similar problem before, looking into how you tried to address it can provide you with useful clues on how to approach the situation, as well as help you avoid approaches that have been proven not to work.
Answering this question saves you time and resources by keeping you from having to reinvent the wheel.
Have others addressed this problem? How?
Even if you have never dealt with such a problem before, it is highly unlikely that the problem is unique to your organization.
There are probably some other businesses and organizations that have successfully solved a similar problem. Investigate which other companies that have had similar problems and what they did to solve it.
What processes or technology did they use? What worked for them? What didn’t work? Why did they choose one solution over the other? How much did it cost them to develop and implement the solution? Finding out this information can also save you lots of crucial time and resources and help you find new angles of looking at the problem that you might have overlooked.
What constraints are there to implementing the solution?
By this time, you have a clear idea of what it takes to develop and implement a solution for the problem. You know what worked and what did not work, both for you and for other organizations. Now is the time to determine any constraints that might make it hard for you to develop and implement a solution.
Does your organization have the financial resources to implement a solution? Will you be able to convince key stakeholders to adopt a certain solution? Do you have staff with the talent and skills required to implement the solution?
Are there any legal considerations and regulations that might make it hard for you to implement the solution? Do you need to get licensing for patents and intellectual property rights? The answers to these questions will influence the kind of solutions you might choose to pursue.
WRITE A PROBLEM STATEMENT
By this point, you should have gathered enough information about the problem you are trying to solve, as well as all the requirements that your solution needs to meet.
Now is the time to write a clear problem statement that aggregates all the information learned in the previous steps, clearly outlining what the problem is, what a viable solution entails and what resources the organization needs in order to develop and implement the solution.
Sometimes, organizations might turn to outsiders to help them solve problems. A clear problem statement ensures that everyone who attempts to solve the problem (both insiders and outsiders) are on the same page and have a good grasp of the issue at hand.
Below are some questions you need to ask yourself in order to develop a detailed problem statement:
Is it one or several problems?
During the first step where you articulated the problem, you might have discovered that the problem is more complicated than you thought, calling for more than one solution.
If the problem is complicated, break it into individual elements that can have their solutions developed separately.
What requirements must the solution meet?
When gathering information about your solution, it becomes apparent what requirements a solution needs to meet in order for it to be viable.
These requirements need to be included in the problem statement so that every person working on the problem knows the parameters within which they are allowed to operate.
Are there any incentives for solving the problem?
Sometimes, it becomes necessary to have in place incentives to motivate people to work on the problem.
If you are offering any incentives for people attempting to solve the problem, the incentives should be mentioned as part of the problem statement.
Typically, bonuses and promotions are given as incentives for internal employees of an organization, while outsiders are usually motivated with cash incentives.
REAL LIFE EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE/ORGANIZATIONS THAT FOUND SOLUTIONS BY REDEFINING PROBLEMS
Example One: Netflix
In 2006, Netflix realized that is was having a problem with viewing recommendations. Determined to solve the problem, Netflix offered a $1 million award to anyone who could come up with a way to make their recommendation algorithms 10% more efficient.
Top universities and software companies threw themselves at the task with a lot of vigor. After three years, a lot of solutions were recommended to Netflix. Surprisingly, none of the solutions solved the problem effective enough, and Netflix did not fully implement any of the solutions.
Netflix’s failure to find an effective solution stemmed from the fact that their definition of the problem was too rigid. Instead of seeking recommendations on how to improve recommendations, Netflix was looking for recommendations on how to improve the recommendations algorithm.
This can be compared to the man who asked for a bridge instead of a way to get across the river.
As Netflix’s business evolved, they later realized they could offer better, more personal recommendations simply by splitting family accounts. By the time they came to this solution, $1 million had gone down the drain.
Example Two: Brabham
While working as a Formula One racing Car designer at Brabham, Gordon Murray was given a challenging task.
As the lead designer, Murray was charged with coming up with designs that would give Brabham a performance edge over competitors’ racing cars.
The problem is that Brabham did not have a lot of money to play with. His design budget was about a third the budgets of competitors. Instead of seeing this as a challenge, Murray saw it as an opportunity.
Other racing car designers with bigger budgets were thinking about the performance elements they could add to their designs to make their cars faster.
Without a budget for extra performance elements, Murray focused on the elements he could eliminate from his designs to make his cars lighter. After all, the lighter the car, the faster it could pick up speed and brake.
So, instead of complaining about the limited budget, he reduced the parts in his design and had his drivers carry few spare parts.
He also had his drivers start the race with less fuel, with a scheduled pit stop for refueling. By rethinking his problem, Murray was able to maintain great performance despite having a significantly smaller budget.
Example Three: Downtown Dog Rescue
Americans love dogs very much, with about 40% of households in the United States having a dog as a pet. Unfortunately, every year, dog shelters take in about 3 million dogs, which are put up for adoption. Despite all efforts by shelters and animal-welfare groups to raise awareness on the issue, only about 1.4 million dogs get adopted each year. This means that, with time, the dog shelters get crowded and cannot take up any more dogs.
In a bid to help resolve the problem, Downtown Dog Rescue founder Lori Weise decided to take a deeper look into the issue.
She realized that 30% of dogs are surrendered to shelters by their owners. This triggered a mental shift in Weise’s mind. Instead of creating more awareness about the need to adopt a dog, she started an initiative that would see more dogs remain with their initial owners.
After investigating why people were surrendering their dogs to shelters, she discovered that the actual problem was poverty. Due to poverty, people could not afford to keep their dogs and therefore opted to surrender them to shelters. If they had an option, these people would keep their dogs.
She started a program where people who wanted to keep their dogs but could not afford it received support to help maintain their dog. By reframing the problem, Weise was able to lower the number of owner surrenders by a whopping 75%.
Very often, people and organizations fail to come up with the right solutions to problems because they do not take the time to define and understand the problem. They waste a lot of time and resources coming up solutions, only to realize that they solved the wrong problem.
To avoid this, it is important to take the time to define the problem, look at it from different angles and understand it completely. Only by doing so will you be able to come up with simple, straightforward and effective solutions.
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