What’s the problem?

Problems are the gaps between the present condition and the desired condition.

“The formulation of a problem is often more important than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills. To raise new questions, new problems, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and makes real advances – Albert Einstein

Problems are like caves – the deeper you explore, the more you discover.

There are two main problems with problem solving:

  • Treating the symptoms of an underlying problem.
  • Poor problem statement overlooking key elements.

Treating the symptoms of an underlying problem

Like the top of a floating iceberg, usually only the symptoms of a problem are visible. It is important to understand and differentiate between the original causes of a problem and its symptoms. Causes are the base of the problem. Symptoms demonstrate the existence of the problem.

For example, a company may have inefficient customer service employees. This is a symptom. The real cause of the problem may be poor customer service training.

Finding a good solution for a symptom will not solve the “real” problem. You need to cure the illness, not its symptoms.

Poor problem statement overlooking key elements

Good problem statements clearly summarize the problem.

The problem statement influences the solution. If you define your problem incorrectly, you’ll be solving the wrong problem. How can you solve a problem if it’s not the correct problem to be solved? We need to understand the situation properly to be able to write an unambiguous description of a problem. From understanding comes insights and creative ideas.

If we are dealing with more complex problems, try breaking them into smaller parts to recognize all aspects of the problem. Analyze the situation from different dimensions and include all conditions restraining each part of the problem.

Think of alternative problem statements. Changing the problem statement helps you see the situation from a new perspective.

For example, in the early industrial age, when buildings began to grow taller and taller, people were complaining about the speed of the elevators. Elevator companies were dealing with the problem statement “elevators are too slow”. When an engineer changed the statement to “people think that elevators are too slow” an all new array of ideas emerged.

Finding a solution to that statement, elevator companies placed mirrors in the elevators, so people get preoccupied with other things instead of the thought of danger. On the survey that followed, customers’ feedback was that the new elevators were much faster, even though there was no change in the speed or the design of the tested elevators.

Even if you just rephrase the problem, you’ll get new solutions. For example, each of the following two questions: “How can I finish this work by the end of the day?” and “How can I get this work finished by the end of the day?” leads to different solutions. For the first question we’ll explore time-saving approaches, while for the second one we might try to delegate some of the work to others. It demonstrates how just a small change of the question can transform your ideas.

Try flipping the question from positive to eliminating the negative and vice versa. If you’ve been asking “How can I make this website more user-friendly?” try asking instead “How can I make this website less user-unfriendly?” Instead of asking “How do I spend less time completing this task?” ask “How do I save time completing this task?”

Consistently ask why the problem needs to be solved. Then ask ‘why’ to the answer of the problem statement. Then ask ‘why’ to that answer, etc. This simple technique can challenge your problem and produce many viable problem statements.

Create problem statement questions starting with “How can I/we…” For example, instead of creating a problem statement like “We don’t have enough visitors in our retail store” try rephrasing it to “How can we increase the traffic to our retail store?” “How do I/we…” questions describe the problems to be solved and encourage imagination.

A well defined problem question inspires creativity.

Creative questions call for creative answers which lead to creative solutions.

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