01 October 2019

What's the Problem?

"A problem well-stated is a problem half solved.

--John Dewey

I took on a complex restructuring engagement several years ago and needed help. A telephone appointment was arranged with Dr. Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus, Work and Organization Studies, MIT, Cambridge, MA. Dr. Schein, credited with founding the field of organizational culture, is one of my favorite authors. (See "Organizational Culture and Leadership" 5th edition.)

(C) Inc.

He listened politely to the proposition. I said to think about the offer and that I would call back in a week for his response. Thankfully, Dr. Schein signed on and thus began a 36-month professional relationship with one of the great minds in strategic management. 

Dr. Schein's initial advice came in the form of a question--"What's the problem?" Then, he kept probing to ensure the client was thinking carefully and not rushing to find solutions. Why that approach? Because teams, and task forces, under pressure, often try to solve complex problems without proper judgment.  

Or they try to solve a problem when it's a "polarity" to be managed. Sample polarities or tensions include short-term vs. .long-term, centralization vs. decentralization, and growth vs. consolidation. (See "Polarity Management" by Barry Johnson.)

Defining the problem

Regardless of your position or the nature of the enterprise, problems are ever-present. They vary in degree and form and come from all directions. Some are resolved quickly by drawing on previous experiences. Others require more time and study.  

Since problem-solving and decision-making go together, what can we do to improve the process? 

For an intricate, unsettled question involving corporate strategy, you could begin by asking--

"What prevents us from reaching our goal?"

You may need to state the problem broadly since the exact problem may not be obvious. This is due to a lack of information to define it, or you confuse symptoms with underlying causes. 

Prepare a statement of the problem and find someone you trust to review it and talk it over. For example, if the problem is a job situation, check it with your supervisor or another appropriate person.  

Consider these questions

In reflecting on the situation, the right questions are helpful:

o  What's the problem?
o  Is it my problem or someone else's?
o  Can I solve it? Is it worth solving?
o  Is this the real problem, or merely a symptom of a larger one?
o  If this is an old problem, what's wrong with the previous solution?


o  Does it need an immediate solution, or can it wait?
o  Is it likely to go away by itself?
o  Can I risk ignoring it?

o  Does the problem have an ethical dimension?
o  What conditions must the solution satisfy?
o  Will the solution affect something that must remain unchanged?

Restating the problem

Dr. Schein recommends taking your original definition of the problem and periodically updating it with new insights. Seeing intuitively comes by observing a complicated issue from different perspectives. It's also possible to come upon new facts by remaining open-minded and not giving up too soon.  

How often do you restate the problem?  

That depends on its nature and urgency. Some research on this topic suggests that in almost all cases, the conditions and constraints affecting the problem and its possible solutions change over time--sometimes dramatically--changing both the problem and the range of options designed to address it.  

And don't forget

As some questions have no answers, specific problems have no solutions.   

*Study Guides and Strategies contributed to this post.


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