[HG] FeaturedImage_Why Problem Solving Requires Defining the Problem

To Solve a Problem, First You Have to Define It

So much of work is about solving problems. When something breaks, how do you fix it? If a customer is upset, how do you assuage them? Falling behind competitors? Solve the problem through innovation. And yet, we tend to simplify this process and skip a crucial aspect: Identifying and defining the problem we’re trying to solve.

Consider a typewriter manufacturer in the 1980s watching the booming popularity of personal computers. To compete, that typewriter maker could offer new features, including electronic typewriters. But that would be solving the wrong problem. Most consumers didn’t want better typewriters; they wanted something different. 

Learn more about why it’s important to clearly define your problem and how Whole Brain® Thinking can help your team move beyond surface-level concerns.

4 Benefits of Defining Your Problem Before Taking Action

Before we get into the benefits, let’s address a potential objection right away: that pausing to define the problem inhibits speed and innovation. For certain, sometimes people and companies try to prevent problems from being addressed. They stall, throw up bureaucratic hurdles, or warn of the dangers of alternative solutions. (In those situations, it may help to consider that they have defined the problem for themselves: They don’t want the status quo to change. Which doesn’t help the real problem-solvers.)

Taking time to pause and define the problem doesn’t prevent teams and companies from moving quickly. You can still iterate. You can still dream big and try new things. In fact, by understanding what you’re addressing and what direction you’re headed, you can act more quickly, with fewer reversals and less frustration.

Here are some of the benefits when you define the problem before taking action.

An Opportunity to Gather Relevant Facts

By defining the problem before jumping into solutions, you gain a deeper understanding of its nature and scope. This clarity allows you to identify any underlying complexities or contributing factors that may be at play.

Not rushing into action allows for a full understanding of the problem, what’s been tried already (by your team or others) to solve it, and the full range of options available. This information-gathering can include formal research, data collection, talking to customers, or internal discussion by the team. 

By understanding what you’re up against, you can assess ‌traditional options while creating a framework for unconventional thinking.

Space to Methodically Identify Root Causes and Develop Action Plans

Many problems present surface-level symptoms but are‌ the result of compounding or cumulative risks. For example, the supply chain crunches of the early 2020s weren't simply a matter of insufficient goods production. Instead, the supply chain faced multiple underlying problems: changing consumption and trade patterns, pandemic-induced workforce changes, geopolitical tensions, and more.

By delving deeper into a problem, you can identify whether underlying reasons are driving it. Addressing these root causes is essential for developing sustainable solutions that prevent a recurrence. 

For example, a decline in customer service could look like a simple performance issue, but further study reveals that new software was installed without proper training, causing support agents to make mistakes and work more slowly. Without better training or a reassessment of the software’s effectiveness, you won’t be able to fix the problem.

A Chance to Thoughtfully Consider the Impact on Your People

Taking a little extra time also allows your team to go beyond putting out fires. When problem-solving begins with defining the problem, you can also envision an ongoing solution that improves your employee experience rather than just stopping a negative event. 

Consider a manufacturer beset by product defects. Upon closer examination, company leaders discovered that the decline primarily occurred during the night shift. That narrows the problem’s scope. Further inquiry revealed that the night shift had high turnover and rushed training. This further narrows and illuminates the problem. You now know the problem is primarily confined to the night shift, isn’t caused by malicious actors, and is correctable if everyone works together.

An Opportunity to Develop Holistic Solutions 

When teams rush into problem-solving without understanding the situation, they can struggle to set goals other than “make the problem go away.” This can lead to shortsighted and even counterproductive reactions. By clearly defining the desired outcomes and goals, you provide a framework for developing solutions that align with company values and goals. 

Consider a pharmaceutical company’s R&D division struggling to get drugs to market in a timely fashion and within budget. Knowing that the outcomes are bad isn’t the same as understanding the problem. By pausing to define the problem, R&D leaders might determine which key milestones are most behind schedule or over budget. From there, they can set clear objectives to improve performance, such as improving processes for clinical trials or reducing the time needed to file paperwork for regulatory approvals.

4 Downsides of Rushing Into Problem-Solving:  1. Inadequate Analysis of the Problem. 2. Wasted Time and Resources. 3. Setting Teams Up for Repeated Failures. 4. Failing to Consider Other Perspectives.

The Downsides of Rushing Into Problem-Solving

Certain problems truly are emergencies that require an immediate and obvious response. However, leaders are much more likely to encounter all sorts of problems that aren’t as obvious, are timely but not urgent, and could benefit from a full diagnosis before taking action. 

Even when you encounter a problem that requires immediate attention, the effectiveness of your problem-solving will depend on the groundwork you’ve put in. Research suggests that cognitive diversity and psychological safety are the two most important features of top-performing teams. In other words, teams that look for a range of perspectives — and feel safe sharing their views — will have more success solving problems. They’re also more likely to consider the problem before rushing to action.

Here are some of the other downsides for teams that spring into action without defining the problem. 

Inadequate Analysis of the Problem

By rushing into action, teams can wind up with incomplete or inaccurate problem definitions. They overlook the importance of analyzing what went wrong, leading to a lack of certainty about the root causes, much less the appropriate solutions. This can result in misalignment, where the team focuses on the wrong aspects of the problem and implements ineffective solutions that fail to improve the situation and may even exacerbate it.

At best, teams without a deep understanding of the problem might address symptoms rather than underlying issues. They might buy some time, but the problem will return, potentially worse than before. 

By contrast, taking time to thoroughly analyze the problem provides teams with a comprehensive understanding of what went wrong, its impacts, and the likely causes. This approach helps teams better define the problem and develop targeted solutions.

Wasted Time and Resources

When teams rush to solve problems without understanding what they’re solving for, they’re unlikely to be efficient or organized. When teams take an ad hoc, improvised approach to problem-solving, they’ll likely waste time and resources. Worse still, they might repeatedly go back to the drawing board, causing frustration and reducing morale. 

Teams that embrace an organized, practical approach, by contrast, recognize the value in developing clear processes for examining the problem, gathering valid findings, and only then creating a plan for solving the problem.

For some problems, this might require a formal investigation by a group. In other cases, data analysis and discussion could be sufficient for revealing the problem and allowing for a coordinated response. 

Setting Teams Up for Repeated Failures

Rushing into problem-solving can set teams up for repeated failure, especially if team members with insights into the potential causes aren’t consulted or are ignored. This lack of emotional connection and understanding contributes to miscommunication, misunderstandings, and conflicts that hinder progress. 

In some cases, this lack of interpersonal coordination could be an important driver of the problem. Teams that fail to identify knowledge gaps will also struggle to identify problems, much less solve them.

By contrast, teams that actively listen to each other, welcome different perspectives and create a supportive and inclusive environment can explore all avenues of the problem. They’re more likely to define the issue more accurately because they’re overcoming blindspots and biases. Because these teams have higher levels of trust and psychological safety, they’re also better equipped to creatively solve the defined problem.

Failing to Consider Other Perspectives

When teams rush into problem-solving, they may be tempted to implement quick fixes. They might lack the resources or time to explore further or suffer from a culture that punishes mistakes or outside-the-box thinking. These superficial solutions may provide temporary relief, but teams that fail to consider other perspectives are more likely to misdiagnose the true problem.

For example, a software company finds its core product crashes during peak usage. Eager to appease upset customers and assuming the problem is simple, the team quickly increases server capacity to handle peak loads. This works — for the moment. 

But when the product continues to crash, the team realizes there’s a deeper issue. While developers eventually identified and solved the problem, the company lost several large customers, having squandered trust by claiming to fix a problem that then recurred.

By contrast, teams that welcome experimental thinking are willing to think about problems differently. They're open to standard explanations but also able to accept new ways of thinking, which can help them define novel problems or unusual variants of longstanding challenges.

Whole Brain® Thinking illustration of the four quadrants.

How Whole Brain® Thinking Helps Teams Better Identify and Define Problems 

The Whole Brain® Thinking framework helps individuals, teams, and organizations gain self-awareness of their thinking preferences and develop a common language to improve problem-solving, decision-making, communication, and more. 

This model can be particularly helpful in the early stages of identifying problems because of its emphasis on cognitive diversity and intellectual curiosity. Problem-solving inside organizations is inherently collaborative, and Whole Brain® Thinking facilitates teamwork by helping individuals understand each other’s thinking, build trust, and engage with different ideas..

Here are some ways your team can better define problems with the help of Whole Brain® Thinking.

Collaborative Brainstorming

Collaborative brainstorming encourages teams to work together to generate as many ideas as possible without judgment or nit-picking. Teams that practice Whole Brain® Thinking are more likely to succeed with this brainstorming because they understand the value of collaboration and cognitive diversity — that differences within the team are opportunities for greater understanding and innovation, not division. 

Collaborative brainstorming can be helpful when a problem is unfamiliar or doesn’t have an immediate corollary. For example, a marketing team is tasked with revamping its strategy and launching an inventive new product. The problem isn’t understanding basic marketing techniques but rather identifying what the customer’s problem is — and how your product solves it. 

As these teams define the problem, they’ll need to be creative (Yellow) without losing sight of budgets and timelines (Green) and the need to show a return on investment (Blue). They also must think about how to rally internal stakeholders (Red) who might be skeptical. While marketing has defined roles, collaborative brainstorming is one method of surfacing every thinker’s contributions for a campaign that checks all the boxes while demonstrating out-of-the-box thinking.

Data Analysis and Research

Big problems can generate emotional reactions and an urgency to do something — anything. And while people’s feelings are a component of relational thinking in Whole Brain® Thinking, they aren’t the only consideration. 

When defining the problem, looking at hard data or past examples can help teams define the immediate problem and other potential problems and the longer-term impact on the business. This analytical thinking can be paired with structured (Green) thinking to create a timeline and process for analyzing the issue. Experimental or innovative thinking (Yellow) is also important, as some problems truly are novel. Without someone asking, “What if?” teams can struggle to make progress on identifying the issue, much less addressing it.

Stakeholder Perspectives

Whole Brain® Thinking encourages teams to consider the perspectives of all stakeholders. Problem-solving can quickly focus on to-do lists, analysis, and ideation — all with a heightened sense of urgency. In those moments, relational thinking can help everyone keep in mind the people affected by the problem. Assigning blame or shutting people out of the problem-identification process can dampen their morale, harm performance, and make them less willing to contribute.

Relational and analytical thinking can also help uncover root causes in different ways. For example, your HR department or customer service team are stakeholder groups that are especially attuned to how problems affect employees and customers. Likewise, analysis-minded thinkers can help run the numbers to ensure the surface-level problem isn’t misleading.

Problem Statement Development

Whole Brain® Thinking emphasizes the iterative process of problem statement refinement, particularly through experimental (Yellow) thinking. However, each thinking preference brings a different perspective when developing problem statements. 

For instance, an analytical thinker might focus on identifying root causes. A practical thinker might consider the impact on operations. A relational thinker might emphasize the human element. And an innovative thinker might explore alternative problem statements. Of course, these oversimplifications illustrate the need for all types of thinkers when defining problems, especially when iterating. 

Problem Solving Begins With Defining Your Problem

No one wants to let problems linger. But good judgment should always go with speed. By defining the problem before taking action, your team has a better chance of identifying the correct problem and devising long-lasting solutions.

Because defining problems, let alone solving them, can be difficult, Whole Brain® Thinking can be an invaluable framework for unlocking your team’s cognitive diversity, collaborative spirit, and innovation skills. Consider how your team’s different perspectives and life experiences improve how you detect, identify, define, solve, and prevent problems. Defining the problem can be the difference between success and failure, especially in a business environment that’s only getting faster and more competitive.

Looking to better understand your team’s unique perspectives and knowledge? Download our guide to communicating with different thinkers.

The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.

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