Finding the Right Problems to Solve

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Picture this. You are called into a meeting, your boss mentions a business problem, gives you 5 minutes to process it, and then provides you with a possible solution. You speak for a few minutes on evolving the solution and after the short conversation, you are tasked with execution. You start working on it and with time you keep coming across problems that derail you from the solution.  Sounds familiar? It is to many.

When it comes to solving problems in business, we are often hasty – very hasty. There is an intrinsic drive to get to solutioning and results. This leads to quick fixes that only last as long as the actual problem takes to manifest itself into another bigger problem.

Problems are great to have.

Problems are hindrances that can be intimidating. They are often viewed as a glitch that need to be removed as soon as possible. This mindset results in quick fixing.

To go beyond quick fixing, we need to relook at problems as opportunities. They are windows that guide us towards unmet needs, untapped values, and help us grow beyond what already exists.

Hence, it’s important to spend time in the ‘’problem space’’ – the space where the problem lies and is waiting to be defined.

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein

In the problem space, the real problem manifests itself into multiple surfacing problems that signal a core underlying issue.  Quick fixes tend to solve surfacing problems and distract us from dwelling deeper into the core issue.

Outcome: Lost value and wasted time

Navigating the problem space.

Identifying the right problem asks us to spend more time in the problem space. It is a challenging process and getting to the real problem can be a bit exhausting. The good news is that we don’t have to do it all alone.

Start by digging deeper into the surfacing problems. Surfacing problems bubble up from the underlying problem and are signals that guide us towards it. Going deeper can uncover blind spots and gaps that were not on the radar earlier.

Here is how to get to depth

Regardless of where we are in identifying problems, there are multiple frameworks that can help us get to depth.

STEP 0: List Your Assumptions

Listing assumptions is ‘step 0’ because this is something that teams should do regularly – regardless of the task at hand. In this context, list down all your assumptions about what you think is the problem is. This can either be done individually or in groups.

This step helps you put everything that you have in your mind out in the open. Additionally, it also helps you become more aware of the biases you may have regarding the issue at hand.

STEP 1: Wear the Researchers Hat

Once you have listed down all your assumptions the next step is to start looking at the problem with a beginner’s mindset. A beginner’s mindset is one where you approach every problem as a new person – a person who has no experience or idea about what they may encounter. This helps us get curious and approach the problem with an intention to genuinely understand the root-cause.  

A key mantra that I follow when I approach problems is: No one really knows what the real problem is – including the person who has raised it. As a researcher, it is our role to take help of the surfacing problems and get to depth.

The type of research you run at this point depends upon the context of the problem you are facing as well as the amount of confidence you need before you feel sure that you have got to the root cause of the problem.

An effective technique is conducting listening sessions with customers & employees. This can help you identify recurring themes and insights that point towards possible root causes.

STEP 2: Frame the Problem

Once you have the insights, framing the problem the right way is as important as identifying the problem.

When we frame problems, we try to look at them from different lenses to see what the best way is to approach them. This also helps us identify gaps in our research process.

So, consider this step as validation of what we have found out so far and an enabler to move forward. Getting the team together to come up with ‘’problem statements’’ and driving consensus on the framing is a great way to get started.

STEP 3: Get Tangible

At this point, you have framed the problem and are energized to work towards the solution. But the problem statement is broad and vague. How do you know where to start? By getting tangible.

At this stage, we move towards solutioning by uncovering tangible problems so we could start solving them. You can do this by inviting people to the brainstorming table – including the one you are solving for – to build the solution. This way you get validation that your ideas are on the right track.

 Step 4: Get to Value

As the solution starts to take shape, start creating scrappy prototypes to put in front of people and test them. Once people are able to see the solution, they (often) jump in to co-create the solution with you! This helps uncover blindspots from both sides and help you improve the solution in a way that adds value.

Spending time in the problem space boosts value as it guides us towards building superior solutions. It also drives efficiencies as it helps solve the right problems. This offsets risk and ensures that the right investments are being made.

When we take the help of people – the ones that build the solution and the ones that the solution is for – we are able to get their buy-in and confidence in the solution, and eventually, in us. And that is a wonderful outcome – all thanks to having problems!

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