Better Decisions Through Better Problem Statements
Working too fast to find a solution without fully understanding the actual problem you are trying to solve is a sure-fire way to waste time and money, or worse! A few (of the many) great quotes from Albert Einstein that resonate with me on this topic.
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them" -- Albert Einstein
"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would spend 55 minutes to determine the proper question" --Albert Einstein
I have been writing a series of articles about my time as a US Navy fighter pilot and how some of the lessons learned from that intense period of my life can be applied today.
As the stress levels in business continue to ratchet up across pretty much every industry and geography there is a tendency to jump to the first solution that seems to 'fix' the problem. As we have all lived during the last 6 months of Covid-19, we see how decisions have had unintended consequences such as shutting down the economy/schools and the increase in mental health issues.
During my Navy days (the early 1990s) after the cold war, the US Navy rarely had any real military opponents that could match them as far as technology or capability. From the outside it might seem like an easy job: 1) find a problem someplace in the world 2) identify the 'bad guys' 3) apply military force and 4) come home a hero.
I spent the winter of 1992-93 in the Adriatic Ocean off the coast of Croatia supporting the UN peacekeepers sent to intervene in the Bosnian war. I can attest that the formula above had no bearing on how we handled this situation. This was an incredibly complex war with multiple stakeholders and no clear 'bad guys'. Figuring out what exactly what our mission was there was not trivial. I ended up spending the bulk of my 6-month tour protecting C130 cargo planes dropping food and supplies into the mountains around Sarajevo as people were starving and freezing during a particularly cold winter. Hardly following the military recipe!
As companies are now faced with an incredibly difficult set of issues to deal with I would suggest that leadership teams really must focus their extra energy on defining the right problem to solve. Luckily there are many tools available for teams to help with this, ie Design thinking, customer journey mapping etc. The only warning is that these require you to THINK before acting, so make a cup of tea and take your time. As is turns out, the specialists in your organisation from Innovation and Design are well placed to drive this process. These generalists may not know exactly what the problem is but they are experts at getting SMEs to come to the right problem statement.
Next time you are in the middle of a project meeting, don't be afraid of asking "Are we sure we understand the exact problem that we are trying to solve?". You might just feel a little pat on the shoulder from your old pal Albert :)