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Problem Solving

| June 13, 2017

by Jim Bruce

We are born problem solvers!  From the moment you wake in the morning until you are fast asleep at night, you are at the ready, just waiting for the next problem to arise.
Now, some of the problems are simple and repetitive, like, for example, what do I do when the alarm goes off signaling that it’s time to get up?  Or, what route do I take to go to work today? In such simple instances, our brain is ready to serve up a solution: “Let’s do what we did the last time this situation arose.”  Sounds a lot like a habit, doesn’t it?
Last week, in the Tuesday Reading “The 5 Whys”, as an illustration, we talked about a family problem that Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, had:  How could he and his wife and their two sons regularly eat dinner together?  This was a well defined, clearly stated, yet complex, problem that he addressed with the 5 Whys.
But, what if it’s more complicated?  For example, what if the problem is writing the performance appraisal and annual plan for the coming year for a problematic employee?  Or, what if the problem is the approach to follow over the next five years to meet the growing data storage needs for your university?  Or, …  You get the idea.  Sometimes we only have an unformed, incomplete idea of what the problem is.  And, guess what?  Since our brain is trying to be helpful, it looks for something that appears “like” what we are trying to address.  And, very likely, particularly if we are stressed and pressed for time, we may even fall for it.  Resist that temptation!
And, this is when it’s important to remember the Albert Einstein quote:  “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
So, how do we go about thinking about a problem?  Claudia Juech, Rockefeller Foundation Managing Director in an interview with Traci Carpenter, suggests that you begin by understanding exactly what the problem is.   No matter how large or small, if you don’t fully understand the problem, it is very unlikely that you will address it successfully. And, to understand the problem, you must put an appropriate amount of thinking and resources into that work.
Here’s a simple outline that you may find helpful in developing and proposing a solution:
1.  Clearly state the problem.  Years ago while I was still CIO at MIT, we had a fiber optic cable cut and a section of the cable was ripped out of the conduit as well.  All this happened late one afternoon before a holiday, disrupting critical resources for a significant portion of the campus.  The objective was to restore service as rapidly as possible.  So, while the cable cut was the problem, each step of the remediation process had to be thought through, identifying all the players, the resources they would need, etc.
2.  Research the problem.  In this case, the research needed was to determine what had to be done to replace the service as rapidly as possible.  In the case of data storage example earlier, the research has to be more extensive in understanding the needs of current and potential future clients across the university campus, the technology options, the costs involved, the possible timelines, etc.  It requires consultation with clients as well as experts in the technologies that might be applicable and the business relationships that might be appropriate. 
In the general case, you will need to involve others in your efforts.  Truly understanding all aspects of the problem along with developing solutions to it requires specific knowledge about a subject, often deeper causal knowledge than you have.  Don’t be reluctant to involve others who have the knowledge you need to successfully complete your work
3.  Identify possible solutions.  Don’t limit your work to a single solution.  Look for options, even options that push the boundaries beyond the limits of “we’ve never done anything like this before.”  Understand the advantage of each option as compared to the others.  Collaborate with others in reaching a decision as to which option(s) to take forward.  Be sure to understand all of the cost and business implications.
4.  Select a possible solution and take it forward.  Make the case for your proposed solution, stating advantages and disadvantages, and, if appropriate, comparing the proposed solution to other options on all of the relevant dimensions.
Leaders are called upon to solve both large and small problems all the time.  Some are small and can be handled by yourself in short order.  Others are larger and require careful work over a longer period of time.  In each instance, however, your success will depend upon a careful and complete definition and understanding of the problem.  There is nothing like your own and a manager’s disappointment when he or she reviews a proposed solution only to find that a key piece of the problem was not considered.  “Oops” doesn’t come close to anyone’s feeling at that time.
So, the next time you are handed a problem to solve, make sure that you take the time to carefully understand the problem and who and what are involved.  Your likelihood of success will be much higher if you do.
Make yours a great week.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Michael Cooper, Defining Problems:  The Most Important Business Skill You’ve Never Been Taught,, September 26, 2014.
Traci Carpenter, Defining the Problem to Find the Solution,, October 3, 2014.
Art Markman, How You Define the Problem Determines Whether You Solve It,, June 6, 2017.
Art Markman, 3 Reasons Why You Are Failing at Problem Solving,, September,4, 2013.
Tim Hicks, Seven steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace,