Defining the Problem

“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

8D-Problem-Solving-DiagramTrue problem solving requires doing one important thing – defining the problem. Doing so is so essential and critical to actually getting a desired result that nothing can be resolved withing accurately taking this first step. While Democrats and the President want to make naming the terrorist threat about saying some words, that was never the intended purpose – the purpose is to specifically identify what problem needs to be solved.

Trying to solve something that isn’t the problem is a waste of time and resources and a sure guarantee that the situation will never be resolved.

I want to highlight an article by Dwayne Spradlin I ran across in the Harvard Business Review several years ago.

Spradlin is the president and CEO of InnoCentive, an online marketplace that connects organizations with freelance problem solvers in a multitude of fields. He is a coauthor, with Alpheus Bingham, of The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise (FT Press, 2011).

In 2012, I attended an educational program at the International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, our class had the opportunity to interview Mr. Spradlin via video conference.

Spradlin writes:

“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 said.

Those were wise words, but from what I have observed, most organizations don’t heed them when tackling innovation projects. Indeed, when developing new products, processes, or even businesses, most companies aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why those issues are important. Without that rigor, organizations miss opportunities, waste resources, and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies. How many times have you seen a project go down one path only to realize in hindsight that it should have gone down another? How many times have you seen an innovation program deliver a seemingly breakthrough result only to find that it can’t be implemented or it addresses the wrong problem? Many organizations need to become better at asking the right questions so that they tackle the right problems.

I would argue that while we do have complex, multivariate problems to solve, the most likely reason that we aren’t solving them is that we are not working on the right problem.

When politicians practice the black art of politics, the goal is often to apply a band-aid to a gaping wound to create the appearance of a solution when the only therapy available to save the body politic may be amputation – but they will never tell you that. Their political success depends upon creating the illusion of success – but that “success” is often defined as avoidance of a problem by simply kicking the can down the road.

There is also another aspect of false reasoning that is created by the use of a certain logic tool at an inappropriate stage of the problem solving process. I submit that is the use of the Hegelian Dialectic in the problem definition stage. This dialectic is defined as an interpretive method in which the contradiction between a proposition (thesis) and its antithesis is resolved at a higher level of truth (synthesis).

The assumption that damns this approach to failure is that there can be a “higher level of truth” (one subject to interpretation by the individual) rather than simply an objective truth.

I would argue that while the use of this “post-modern” acceptance of a “third way” or “third answer” might be appropriate in creating a response to a problem, it is not effective in defining a problem. It leads to a thought process that allows the denial of objective truth and allows the protagonist or antagonist to confuse fact with opinion. This leads to a denial that objective truth exists, in essence, to substitute a “user-defined”, malleable “higher truth” in its place. We get in trouble with this dialectic when one side or the other refuses to set the boundaries on the argument – a relevant example would be the discussions about “fair” taxation. I’ve yet to have any liberal tell me what limit they place on “fair”. Right now, that seems only to mean “more”.

I would wager to say that even though I accept the proposition that a problem may have too many inputs to define, the individual inputs are definable – and as a result, they are solvable. On a macro level, our problems are definable – for example, we either have too much debt or we don’t, either revenue exceeds expenditures or they don’t or we either have too high a tax rate or we don’t. That is where we must start if we are ever going to stop the bickering and get about resolving. Without an agreed definition, there can be no understanding.

There are causes for our issues and to ignore that fact is folly. I am not advocating a cold, heartless and purely unemotional approach to issues like welfare and other entitlement spending but to simply ignore them as a contributor to our problems because they are emotionally disturbing is wrong. We may choose not to deal with them in any way but let’s make that an active decision and not a passive acceptance.  Without understanding what role they play means that we will continue to attack the wrong issues and work on problems that will have no effect on improvement while burning valuable assets and calories in haste and waste.

Real solutions to problems are never emotive. Emotions cloud the mind and obscure the facts. As an electorate, we often want the emotion and not the real answer because the real answers are often difficult. Fixing problems is hard work and is seldom flashy or popular. This is another reason that I think we need a serious “fixer” with a record in solving problems rather than an emotive president defined by soaring rhetoric consisting of empty words and cloying platitudes.

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