When we fail to solve hard problems, we often learn to work around them, throw money and resources at them, or we give up and learn to live with them. Problems can be solved. Solving them will benefit our lives, our work, and our communities. To solve any major problem, we need to change our behavior. In 15 years of solving hard problems and coaching great problem solvers, I have found that the great companies and great problem solvers exhibit these six behaviors.
THEY DEFINE THE PROBLEM SIMPLY
Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year old, then you don’t understand it yourself.” I believe this wholeheartedly. Have you heard the old saying “he/she knows enough to be dangerous”? People throw that phrase around as if it is a complement. However, it is a real problem. Knowing enough and knowing enough to be dangerous are drastically different when it comes to understanding the problem.
Before you begin diving into solutions, the first thing to do is fully understand the problem. Problem solvers get down into the details. They dig deep into the process, collect information, work the problem. They also remove from the process those that could be dangerous to finding a solution.
Problem solvers immerse themselves into the problem. They collect data in a variety of ways. Great problem solvers take notes, photos, and videos. They interview the staff members intimately involved with the problem. Then, they measure their findings. Data is key.
Ask questions: What does the problem look like? Is it consistent? When did it first occur? How often does it occur? What patterns are noticed? Where do we expect a problem but not get it? What result is expected upon solution?
Once you’ve collected enough data, define the problem as clearly and accurately as you can within one sentence. Forcing yourself to a small definition will push you to simplify the problem.
THEY DON’T GUESS
Do Not Guess at a solution. You shouldn’t “come up with” a solution, you should "arrive" at a solution. Any time you hear someone say they’ve “come up with a solution” or even better, a “potential solution” it’s a guess. Steer clear of those thoughts. Every time you guess, you’re taking time, resources, money, and effort to prove or disprove this guess. All of those things could have been spent doing something actually productive.
Novice problem solvers will consider these guesses to be hypotheses. They are not. A hypothesis is a proposed model of cause. A guess is a proposed solution to a posed question. A guess can be random/arbitrary, or it can be educated. You don't have time to differentiate which guesses are arbitrary from the guesses which are educated. The simple solution is to stop guessing.
Guessing is counter-productive. Furthermore, guessing at a solution and implementing that solution can cause additional problems. Some of these problems can be incredibly costly.
Be honest. You will guess. It’s natural. It happens all the time. To keep these guesses from being bottled up or being put into action. Write them down and set them aside while you solve the problem.
To stop guessing, use numbers to describe your problem and your solution. Not words and feelings.
THEY EMBRACE THEIR OWN IGNORANCE
Data is collected, the problem is defined, the next step is to embrace ignorance. You need to seek out subject matter experts. You need to seek out those living within the problem or the effects of the problem. Document and define every aspect of the problem through the eyes of those smarter than you about the problem.
The smartest problem solvers are those that maintain their ignorance all the way up to the point of complete understanding.
As a leader, manager, or business owner, the natural tendency is to hide ignorance. We don’t want our employees know our shortcomings. We don’t want our superiors to think we don’t know our business. We don’t want our investors and partners to look down on us, right? This is a costly mistake. When it comes to problem solving, don’t pretend to know or skip over a piece in the process. Show your ignorance and seek education until you understand every piece of the puzzle.
The benefit of embracing ignorance is becoming the expert. After this exercise, you’ll have complete and total knowledge of the problem and the process. Running toward the unknown makes you stronger and smarter. Keep searching through the unknown until it becomes known.
To further understand the problem, build a model of the process and recreate the problem. This will help you simplify the problem for yourself and those around you. Seeing the problem in a model will also help silence the guesses and formulate a hypothesis.
THEY KNOW WHEN TO DIG IN
At this point, you have the data. You’ve defined the problem. You’ve also used ignorance as a strength to understand the process completely. The next step is to dig in. This is the analysis. This is the testing. This is the tension. For an analyst at heart like me, this is the fun part. Look to the right and the left of the problem. Look before the problem occurs and after it occurs. Do you see a trend? Do you see a cause? Dig into the fundamentals.
This is the time you’ll really “look under the hood.” Do you see smoke anywhere? At this point, you should understand the problem and the processes around it. You should be able to see where the hindrances are. You should be able to see where the hitch is. You should be able to see the problem at its root.
Review your videos and notes from data gathering now that you have a new perspective of knowledge. Do you see anything different now? Do you hear anything that doesn’t sound right? Do you notice things now that you didn’t see before? The answer to all of those questions is “Yes!”
THEY STAY ON TARGET
Many problems are complex and complicated. Reviewing the notes, data, process model and all of the guesses (which I told you to forget about, but you didn't) is time-consuming. The problem-solving process is exhausting.
Different parts of the exercise will wear you out based on your strengths and interests. If you enjoy gathering information and asking questions, the Problem Definition phase is fun and exciting. However, once you get to the data analysis phase, you could start to experience burnout. Likewise, if you're an analyst, the data collection piece is quite mundane. Don't stop. You have to muscle through the process and stay on target.
Constantly remind yourself and your team to keep their eye on the prize. Avoid burnout by delegating tasks to employees that enjoy them, OR to employees that need the practice. If you're a solo-problem-solver, delegating is still an option.
Check out some of the best problem solvers on the planet here: https://mystonepath.com/
THEY BELIEVE IN A SIMPLE SOLUTION
Occam's Razor is one of my favorite philosophical principle. The concept of William of Occam's philosophy tells us a simple solution is more likely than a complex solution. He literally states:
The solution that requires the least speculation is usually better.
This is a guiding principle in the scientific community as they search for the answers to phenomenon occurring in the universe. I think it will work for your business as well.
Solving problems is exciting and boring, fun and mundane, educational and frustrating, informative and full of 'wild-goose chases', simple and complex. The full spectrum of emotions can occur during this process. Some problems are quick to solve, others are complex. No two problems are the same; but the process can be.
What problems are you working to solve?
What methods have worked for you?
Which part of the problem solving method do you despise?
I'd love to hear some variations on this process and look forward to you comments!