The story goes that if Albert Einstein had one hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about a solution. In fact, Einstein did that when he wasn't trying to run a company especially in the midst of a pandemic.
In an accelerating world, we tend to save energy by avoiding decisions or rushing to find solutions before we have a chance to fully understand the problems we face.
It's understandable that most of us often jump to solutions. Immediately plunging into a solution seems ideal, but in fact, a hasty "patch" solution that isn't effective often makes things worse, and in the long run, can be just as damaging (or worse) as the problem it is trying to solve. In work as a team leader (can be CEO, manager, lead), we need to be quiet for a moment and develop a framework for solving problems. Here is a simple framework for problem-solving that can help overcome the urge to rush to find solutions.
1. Framing Strategy
Making problem statements seems difficult to do properly for several reasons. First, we often mistakenly think that a symptom is an underlying problem (which is then stated in the problem statement). For example, we assume that to help the economy of a group of unskilled workers, we must focus on fighting for the money they get. In reality, it's just an indication. The real problem could be about education and reluctance to think ahead.
Well framed problem statements opened the way to a wider range of discussion space and options. Bad problem statements shut out alternatives and quickly send us into a dead end.
If you see that problem statements have only one solution, it indicates that we should rethink the problem. Start with observable facts (research-based), not opinions, judgments, assumptions, or interpretations.
2. Fishbone Diagram
When faced with a problem, instead of jumping into a solution, step back to map how we got to this problem. The fishbone diagram (also known as the Ishikawa diagram), provides a model for identifying potential factors causing your problem:
Fishbone diagrams have several categories of factors, and these are not raw; in the example, above there are six categories, we may have four or seven categories, and the category of each problem may be different. A law firm, for example, might not need an “equipment” factor category, while a startup might want to include a category for the “programming language” factor.
If our company is struggling with low team morale, maybe we can start grouping the contributing factors into the following categories: Work Environment, Technology, Psychology, Communication, and Norms. This will then lead us to examine how hard it is for people to work from home (WFH); how well the platform used can support group work; how effectively the company creates opportunities for people to connect with co-workers; how well the leaders' messages reach employees; and what cultural norms and expectations apply to working from home.
3. Always use "Why?"
Asking "why" over and over again before we have settled on an answer is a powerful way to avoid jumping to conclusions — leading to weak solutions. Whether asking five, three, or 11 times, we will eventually get to the root of the problem, because each question prompts us to better understand the real problem. Finding the root cause convinces us that the solution chosen will be long-lasting, not just a "patch" solution to solving the indication—not a problem.
For example, we ask, "Why don't our employees always wear the recommended PPE?" may indicate that we do not have enough PPE stock due to a delay in the purchase. The obvious—and ineffective—the solution was to send memos to the purchasing department and instruct them to speed up delivery. But further investigation with the "why" will show that the supplier did not deliver on time because the accounting team was putting out a payment to save money. . . at the direction of the CEO — who turned out to be ourselves.
As H.L. Mencken, "For every complex problem, there is a clear, simple, and wrong solution." The three steps above don't actually guarantee a solution. But they'll give us an even clearer problem. And while that's not immediately satisfying, it's an important step in finding something that really fits.