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5 Tips to Help Us Solve the ‘Right’ Problem

Many of us, especially those in management roles, spend a lot of time in problem-solving mode. In fact, we often begin solving the problem before we fully understand what it is, which then becomes the real problem!

This story from Russell L. Ackoff beautifully illustrates what we’re talking about...

The owner of an office building was receiving no end of complaints from his tenants about the slow elevator. The obvious solution would be to either replace it completely or install a stronger motor. But when he spoke to his building manager about the problem, the manager came back to him with a brilliant solution! Install mirrors beside the elevator to help people lose track of time because they’re busy looking at themselves and they won’t notice the long wait.

The first solution would have fixed the problem but at a much higher cost. Instead, the problem was approached in a different way- ‘the long wait is annoying’ and as a result, a much simpler less expensive solution did the trick.

There are many comprehensive problem-solving frameworks out there, but they’re complex and take time to implement. For the day-to-day stuff, we need something that’s more straightforward- like ‘reframing’ the problem.

Here are five tips that can help us take another look at what’s in front of us, helping us reconsider what problem we should be solving.

1. Bring people into the conversation from outside your usual team. You want fresh minds that aren’t weighed down with previous experiences that might narrow their perspectives. They should understand your world and how it works, but not be part of your day-to-day team. Choose someone who has the confidence to speak freely and remember you’re looking for them to give you observations that will help your team think differently, not solutions. They’re there to challenge your thinking.

2. Share the elevator story with the group. You want them to understand what you mean when you say you’re looking for ways to ‘reframe’ the problem. Illustrating the concept with a story is the quickest most effective way to do this.

3. Get the problem down in writing. As in most group situations, people can all be part of the same discussion and walk away with different interpretations. Ask the group to each send you a sentence or two detailing what they believe the problem is ahead of your team meeting. Put all the interpretations onto a flip chart (without names attached) and begin your conversation from there. And once you’ve agreed on what the real problem is to be solved, capture that in writing as well to make sure you’re all working from the same understanding.

4. Always looks for what’s missing. We’re very good at providing details about what’s in front of us. But the trick here is to zoom out and see if there’s information you haven’t considered that could be important and change your perception of the problem.

5. Understand the objective. Mary Parker Follet’s story about two people fighting over whether a window should be kept open or closed illustrates this well. The person who wants the window open wants fresh air. The person wanting it closed, wants to avoid a draft. The solution? Open a window in the next room. Depending on the objective of the problem, the solution could look very different. The key is to understand that objective first, then proceed.

It may take some time and practice to get good at reframing, but the mess is worth the effort. It’s such an effective tool, not to mention a wonderful way to train our brains to expand beyond what we know and are comfortable with.

“We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.”

– Russell L. Ackoff


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