Houston, We Have A Problem – Making the problem not a problem

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.  Albert Einstein

As a dedicated Kelleher-ian, I am obviously an advocate for taking action and doing things. And I love solving business problems. But in our eagerness to come up with ideas, possibilities, and innovative solutions when confronted with problems, we must never forget the crucial first step – clearly defining the situation. So, before I bandy about any possible solutions to the problems dumped on my desk, I always begin with a simple question. “What problem are we solving?”

This simple question does a ton of very heavy lifting. It disarms those who are already shooting off tons of ideas before they even understand what they’re looking for. It makes people ask questions, review the back-story, understand the context, and align on the objectives. Anyone tossing out ideas before doing this is rarely successful. And any hope of folks agreeing on a solution is out of the question.

There are lots of reasons it’s critical to define the problem you’re solving:

Alignment is helpful. Asking the question “What problem are we solving?” demands agreement.  Work teams need to define it and agree to it together. This puts everyone on the same page, with the same objectives. And it has the entire team reviewing ideas and possible solutions with the same criteria. Conversely, when team members have differing opinions as to what the problem is, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to agree on solutions.

You reduce opinion and bias. Without a clearly defined and agreed-upon problem, reactions will be purely subjective. “I don’t like that idea”, “that will never work”, “that’s ridiculous”. But when you’re working from a clear problem statement, responses must begin with whether the ideas address the task at hand, vs. whether they’re liked. This is extremely helpful. Subjectivity, naturally, will come into play – which idea is liked best – but only after it’s agreed that the solutions proposed are on-target for the objective.

You get rid of bad assumptions. Similarly, aligning on the problem means you’ve gotten away from assumptions and basic, conventional wisdom. Usually, problems come with lots of built-in assumptions. Often, those assumptions are out-dated, oversimplifications, or simply untrue. So, when defining the real problem you’re solving, you have to attack those assumptions skeptically (I’ve talked about the benefit of skepticism before). This will drive your solutions around the actual problem, not your prejudices or assumptions.

No chasing shiny objects. As I’ve written about before, people can get seduced by chasing “cool” or “wow” and forget their objectives, targets, and goals. This happens often when teams have poorly defined their problem.  But if you’re team has properly and clearly defined the problem, the ideas must lead to solving the problem. The amount of shininess they have is only secondary.

You go beyond treating the symptoms. Sometimes a team will describe their problem merely as a symptom. This would be like a doctor saying your problem was fever, vs. pneumonia. Or you saying that the problem was declining revenue, vs. what is causing this. Obviously, this is not too helpful – and solutions designed for these symptoms won’t like solve the true problem. A properly defined problem successfully goes beyond listing the symptoms and addresses the root cause. This demands that solutions attack the real problem.

How you define your problem is up to you. There are lots of ways to do it – I found 270,000,000 million Google search results from “how to define a problem”. You just have to spend the time doing it. The fact of the matter is, as Einstein alludes to, that the quality of your solutions will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description and clarity of the problem you’re trying to solve.

So what do you think?


  1. Good one Micheal. This is the foundation for everything I teach in my Intro to Engineering classes. First step, define the problem. Step two, brainstorm, then research and generate ideas. Next we develop criteria and constraints…… You get the picture. This can be applied in almost any profession. Love reading your stuff.

  2. I think a well informed question is a problem half solved. Actually, someone much smarter than me said this…I can’t remember who. Another nice one Michael.

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