Why Problem Solving Starts with Problem Definition

Why Problem Solving Starts with Defining Problems

Charles Kettering, the celebrated inventor and head of research at General Motors, once said that a problem well stated is a problem half solved. Most people today would probably agree. And yet, it’s not what most people usually do.

Typically, they jump right in to brainstorming solutions before understanding what they really want to accomplish.

You can dramatically increase your problem-solving effectiveness by taking a few minutes to define the problem up front. In fact, you might be surprised at how often this step leads directly to a solution.

Take the elevator makers’ dilemma, for example.

You can imagine what it was like when elevators were introduced. People were understandably nervous about getting on them. They fidgeted and pushed buttons, impatient and waiting for the elevator to arrive at its destination. And there was a widespread perception that elevators were unbelievably slow. This led to complaints.

So, elevator makers had a problem on their hands: Can we make our product move faster?

The answer was no. The technology simply didn’t exist. Trying to increase elevator speed would have been expensive and probably dangerous.

Here was a perfect opportunity to rethink the problem that needed solving. Did the elevator makers really have a speed issue—or was something else going on?

Defining the real problem

Soon they landed on the real problem: people were worried about riding this new invention. As they waited for an elevator to arrive, they grew nervous. And this threw their perception of time completely out of whack. When you’re afraid of an impending event, time slows down to a crawl.

With a new understanding of the problem, elevator makers began to think beyond speed and ask a different question: How do we distract people so that they’re not paying attention to time?

Lo and behold, an answer arrived: Place a mirror wherever people wait for an elevator.

This was brilliant. A mirror gives you something to do. You check your hair. You check your clothes. And you check out the person standing next to you. It’s the perfect distraction.

Even more interesting was that when elevator makers surveyed people to measure their satisfaction with the product, most were convinced that the speed of elevators had increased. In reality, they just had something else to do while waiting.

This solution is essentially still in place. Instead of a mirror, though, you might see advertisements or a flat-screen TV tuned in to the local news station. These are incentives to ignore the passage of time.

So what’s our learning from this? It’s simple: The problem that you define is the one that you will try to solve. So be careful about how you define the problem.

The first step to problem solving

There’s a simple and powerful technique anyone can use to define a problem. Unfortunately, many people find it annoying or even painful. They want to skip it and move right to brainstorming solutions.

So to begin, ask your team members to slow down and make time for this step. Take the following question and fill in the blanks:

How do we ____ so that ____?

In the elevator example, the first definition of the problem was this: How do we speed up the elevator so that people feel less frustrated?

However, the definition of the problem that actually led to a solution was: How do we distract people so that they feel less worried about riding elevators?

The key is to start with the most obvious ways to fill in the blanks—and then brainstorm many more.

Ask people in your group to do this individually at first. Write each of your ideas on a separate Post-it note. Then place these notes on a flip chart or wall so that everyone can see the options. You’ll probably want to do several rounds, because the first set of ideas might seem too obvious.

The more people in your group, the better—the more thinking diversity you’ll have access to, which means you’ll be more likely to come up with several creative and innovative alternatives. And if your group is small or homogenous, you can use Whole Brain® tools to help you understand and think beyond your preferences so you don’t overlook any options.

Yes, it takes time, but it’s worth the time. A “mirror” solution can ultimately save you a lot of time and money.

Are your teams solving problems effectively?