What problem are you trying to solve?

What problem are you trying to solve?

Within two weeks, I'm invited to deliver a motivational keynote to 300 persons and the organisers of the conference want the keynote to be motivating, inspiring and captivating.  “OK, that’s fine”, I said, “but let me first ask you this: what problem are you trying to solve?”.  The point is this: a motivational keynote can only be effective and impactful if the problem statement is clear.  What is the pain of the organisation?   What challenges is your team facing?

There are few management skills more powerful than the discipline of clearly articulating the problem you want to solve before jumping into action.  I believe there are fewer questions in business more powerful than “What problem are you trying to solve?”  If you formulate a clear problem statement, you will get more done with less effort and you can move more rapidly.  Moreover, a clear problem statement can unlock innovation that lies within each of us.  

As valuable as good problem formulation can be, it is rarely practiced.  Psychologists have already suggested it for decades: our brain wants to jump as quickly as possible from a situation to a solution – without pausing to define the problem clearly.  If you face extreme time pressure, immediately jumping to conclusions can be effective.  However, if you want to push change through your organisation, for instance, formulating the problem is key.  

Research indicates that the human brain has at least two different approaches for tackling a problem: conscious processing and automatic processing.  Conscious processing has a number of disadvantages: it’s slow, it’s finite (you can only tackle one problem at the same time) and it burns energy; it makes you tired.  So because of these costs, our brain often chooses for automatic processing.  In that case, we have no direct control over the decision.  We are only aware of the results.  Hitting the brake when the car in front of you stops suddently is an example of problem solving through automatic processing.  If you want to return a serve in tennis or to hit a baseball, your brain will go for automatic processing: it will use past experiences to make split-second decisions.  However, this can be tricky: automatic processing relies on patterns identified from past experiences.  So it can bias us toward the status quo and away from innovative solutions.  That’s why it’s not always a smart decision to jump to a solution based on previous experiences.  

So clearly define the problem and formulate a focused statement that is actionable.  “Our sales revenue is 17% behind its target” defines the problem, but it not actionable.  Also make sure that the problem statement does not suggest the solution, e.g. “The problem is we lack the right people” or “The problem is we have not upgraded our IT system”.  And finally, make sure that you articulate a clear gap.  “We need to improve our brand perception” is not OK: people have no idea when they will have achieved the goal.  Those poorly formulated problems will only invite people to come up with ineffective one-size-fits-all solutions.  And these solutions will rarely produce results…