What's the Problem?

by | Dec 9, 2019


“Given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 55 minutes understanding the problem and five minutes resolving it.” – Attributed to Albert Einstein*

Jumping to Solutions

One of humanity’s killer apps is our ability to solve problems. We are solution generating machines! What we are not as good at is defining what exactly our problems are. Instead, we often jump headfirst into solutions before we’ve defined the problem we are looking to solve.

Jumping to solutions before problem formulation is rampant in the business world. Here’s a real-life example of jumping to solution: about ten years ago our firm implemented a CRM software system. A few months after adopting the system we noted that many features of the new system weren’t being used by our people. We quickly decided that more training was needed, as were stricter guidelines requiring that the new system be used. Fortunately, when we received pushback from our people we reconvened and realized that our solution of training and enforcement wasn’t addressing the real problem which was that the new system sucked. Thus, we had jumped to a solution that merely addressed a symptom and not the true underlying problem.

Notice in your own business/lives how we often jump to solutions without having adequately defined the problem. Once you are on the lookout you’ll see solutions in search of problems all over the place. A related IFOD: Goodhart’s Law.

A Problem Formulation Process

An award-winning paper titled A Theory of Strategic Problem Formulation by three Washington University professors address the problem of jumping to solutions before problems are identified. In their research they found that problem formulation is essential for good problem solving and yet little focus is paid in academia or business to problem formulation. As such, they recommend that businesses intentionally adopt a process that improves problem formulation.

First, they suggest that problem formulation occur in a group setting as a key finding from their research is that groups are perform better than individuals in problem formulation. “Research suggests that when confronted with . . . problems, individuals often only identify the most obvious symptoms, or those to which they are most sensitive, resulting in the problem being described inappropriately or in overly simple terms.”

Note, however, that groups have their own issues which interfere with problem formulation such as groupthink, tunnel vision and politics. Groups tend to jump “to solutions quickly [which] forecloses the search and evaluation of alternative formulations, which ultimately limits problem formulation comprehensiveness.”

In order for a group to engage in effective problem formulation, the researchers suggest a process with two main parts: framing and formulating.

Framing: In the framing phase the group only focuses on the symptoms of the problem. No group member is allowed to suggest a solution. Only symptoms!

Formulating: In this phase the group only focuses on potential causes of the symptoms. Again – no discussion of possible solutions.

At the conclusion of the Framing and Formulating brainstorming the group has identified the symptoms and likely causes of the symptoms. With that information the group can now define what the problem is. With the problem well-defined the organization can move to finding solutions and implementing them.

Given that problem formulation is not widely practiced in business, a company that makes it a regular practice should have a competitive advantage as it will make better decisions, be more efficient and actually solve the problems that the business faces.

*Albert Einstein probably didn’t say the quote at the top of the page, but it is widely attributed to him. Nonetheless, the point is a good one.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks John. One unfavorite solution of mine is marketing automation for B2B content. Perhaps some find it helpful, but the companies I’ve seen implement them quickly find themselves spending all their time maintaining the system and the “sales funnel.” And they encourage behaviors that are not good, such as requiring visitors to fill forms to access content and then bombarding them with sales calls.


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