What’s the problem?

A big problem in solving problems is knowing what the real problem is. This is a constant in my work with individuals, organizations, and in my own life! Rule of thumb is that the problem we think we have usually isn’t the real problem. It takes some detective work to get to the root. And good root-finding can lead to good solution-finding.

A few good questions

“I’m overwhelmed and disorganized. I need to learn how to use Asana.” Whoa! Them’s big words! What does overwhelmed mean? What does disorganized mean? What will Asana fix? Overwhelmed is a feeling. Disorganized is a label. What is the real problem? And, this statement is a twofer: not only is the problem not defined, there’s a solution inserted into the problem statement, making the problem even murkier.

Questions open doors and help zero in on the real problem. Below are a few of my favs. And, I find a white board helps a lot in root-finding. There’s something about the physical act of standing and writing and seeing thoughts in living color that helps bring clarity.

What problem are you solving? “I’m overwhelmed and disorganized.” Ok! Break it down. What describes overwhelmed for you? What describes disorganized for you?

What’s an example? What has happened in the last few days or weeks that captures “overwhelmed” and “disorganized”?

If this problem was solved, what would happen? Beginning with the end in mind is a universal tool. It works here too. “What would happen is I wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed and be so disorganized.” What else? “Hmmm, I would have made good progress on my project at work.” What project? “This project my manager has me doing that I don’t know how to do and I don’t really understand what she wants.”

The 5 whys: This is a root-cause tool from the Toyota Production System playbook. Sometimes the problem is revealed on the second or third why.

This is a root-cause tool from the Toyota Production System playbook. Sometimes the problem is revealed on the second or third why. 

“I am overwhelmed.” 

  1. Why?  Because I have too much to do. 

  2. Why?  Because I’ve been procrastinating.  

  3. Why?  Because I’m not quite sure how to start this project I’ve been assigned.

  4. Why?  I’m stuck. 

  5. Why?  I don’t know what my manager really wants, I don’t know exactly how to do the analysis.

Ari asks, what kind of problem is it?

This is a simple and powerful tool out of Zingerman’s playbook from Building a Great Business. Before finding solutions to a problem it’s useful to know if it’s a system problem, a training problem, or a management problem. If a system is in place and would work if people knew how to use it and consistently used it, then this is not a system problem. It’s either a management problem (making sure it’s used) or training problem (making sure people know how to use it). If people are properly trained and using a system and it’s not working, then it’s a system problem. While this is a great tool for organizations, it works for individuals, too. In our “I’m overwhelmed and disorganized” example above, while there might be a system or management problem, what we unearthed is a training problem: not understanding the project, and not knowing how to do the analysis.

Does this problem need to be solved right now?

We often anticipate and work to solve problems that don’t exist yet, may never exist, or if they do exist, don’t need to be solved right now. On that last point, I had a client who was about to receive an inheritance from her grandmother (you’re thinking, this is a problem?) and she was losing sleep about what to do with it. She talked to relatives, a financial advisor, her boyfriend, and was stuck. She was fretting about being responsible and doing the right thing, and finances were unsure territory for her. I asked if she needed to make a decision about it right now. She thought for a bit, then laughed and said, “no.” She ultimately did need to figure out what to do with the inheritance, and time was her friend in solution-finding.

Sunday Morning Reflection

What’s a nagging problem you’ve been trying to solve? What’s the real problem? Questions open doors.

Sunday Morning: 112