Understanding the problem

A lot of my work involves helping my clients to solve problems. Perhaps funding has been cut, or performance is down or something has happen that has thrown things into turmoil. Either way, there’s a problem. And something needs to be done about it. But there’s a gap in the middle there that often gets missed. You need to know what the problem is that you are trying to solve.

Not everyone spends enough time on this step, though. Which means that they spend time, effort and money solving the wrong problem. Or not solving a problem at all. Or, indeed, making the existing problem worse.

The most common issue I come across is people solving a symptom of the problem, rather than the actual problem itself. It’s like a doctor treating his or her patient for a fever, without questioning what is causing the fever in the first place.

On other occasions, people only partially understand the problem. So they end up addressing some, but not all, of the factors that gave rise to it. Like our doctor fixing someone’s arm that they broke falling out of a tree, without realising that the patient has broken their leg, too.

Sometimes, however, people think they understand the problem, when in actual fact they really don’t. Frequently, this arises when people jump to conclusions about what is wrong, on the basis of poor information or faulty logic. Like the doctor assuming that, because someone is young, they can’t be having a heart attack.

And sometimes people are just lazy. They do what’s easiest or most convenient, regardless what the actual problem is. Or they use the problem as justification for doing something they wanted to do anyway. No doctor comparison here, though, as I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of thing doctors would do.

The key to solving a problem, then, is to understand the problem as well as you can, before you start thinking about how to resolve it.

So just as a doctor might ask you what happened, measure your pulse and perhaps order some tests, you need to seek information that will allow you to make your own diagnosis of what the problem is.

In an organisational context, you might start with activity data and performance metrics. You might even benchmark this data against previous months or years, or compare it with data from other organisations.

But you need to go beyond this, too. You need to talk to the people involved, whether they are employees, service users or someone else. You need to understand what they are telling you. And you need to listen to them.

You also need to get out of your office to see for yourself what is going on. If it’s a team that’s not performing as expected, sit in on some of their meetings. If it’s a process that’s not working as you’d like, walk through it from the user’s perspective. Is it’s a problem with a supplier or a customer, get out there and work through things with them.

Because knowing that there’s a problem is the easy part. Knowing what to do about it is a whole lot more complex. You need to understand what the problem is and how it has arisen. Because you can’t resolve a problem that you don’t understand. You might even make it worse.

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