Defining a Problem Study Guide (page 3)
The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.
Albert Einstein, German-American scientist, Nobel Prize winner (1879–1955)
How do you know if something is a real problem or just looks like one? In this lesson, you'll find out how to tell the difference between those that are genuine and those that aren't. You'll also discover some common reasons people miss the real problems before them.
No matter what the problem, the only way to come up with an effective solution is to identify the actual problem that needs to be solved before you do anything else. If you don't, you could end up spending your time treating the symptom or consequence of your problem while the real problem remains waiting to be dealt with.
Have you ever spent time looking for a solution to something, only to discover that the real problem is still there, as big as ever? Here's an example. Pete worked for hours pulling up what he thought were weeds in his garden, only to discover a few days later that the very same stuff was growing back. What Pete failed to notice was that sunflower seeds from his birdfeeder spilled into the garden every time a bird landed there. Unless Pete moves the birdfeeder, or changes the kind of seeds he puts into the feeder, he'll continue to have a problem with sprouting sunflowers in his garden. The "weeds" were merely a consequence of the problem—the location and contents of Pete's birdfeeder.
Pete's problem represents a common error in problem solving. People often mistake a more obvious consequence of a problem for the actual problem. This can happen for different reasons. People may be busy, so whatever irritates them the most gets the most attention, or they may make assumptions about the nature of the problem and take action without determining if the assumptions are valid.
When someone "solves" a situation that's not an actual problem, there are two common results:
- The "solution" is unsatisfactory because it fails to address the real problem.
- Further decisions are needed to solve the real problem.
What Is the Real Problem?
Many times, it can be tricky to figure out exactly what the real problem is. Here's an example: Marta's teacher, Mr. Girard, returns her essay with a poor grade and tells her to rewrite it. With no other feedback, Marta doesn't know what's wrong with the essay, so how can she correct it effectively? In this case, it will take some work for Marta to define the problem. First, she needs to reread the essay carefully to see if she can figure out what's wrong with it. If the essay's problems are still not apparent to her, she needs to go to Mr. Girard and ask him to be more specific. Then, when he tells her exactly what's wrong with her work, she can redo it to meet his standards.
At other times, a problem may seem overwhelming in its size and complexity. People may avoid dealing with it because they think it will take too much time or energy to deal with such a large issue. However, a closer look might reveal that there may be only one real problem of manageable size, and a number of offshoots of that problem which will resolve themselves once you deal with the actual problem.
How do you go about defining the real problem? There are a few things to keep in mind.
- Get the information you need, even if you have to ask for it.
- Do not be tricked into solving offshoots, or other consequences, of your problem instead of the problem itself.
- Do not be overwhelmed when you are faced with what looks like, or what you have been told is, a giant problem.
Learn to recognize the difference between a true problem and its offshoots and you'll discover that what appears to be a daunting problem is actually quite doable.
Distinguishing between Problems and their Symptoms or Consequences
How can you be certain you are dealing with real problems rather than their symptoms or consequences? There are two things you can do whenever you believe you need to find a solution: avoid making assumptions, and think the situation through.
Avoid Making Assumptions
What is an assumption in terms of problem solving? It is an idea based on too little or not very good information. For example, the manager of a convenience store has an employee who is often late for her shift. The manager makes the assumption that the employee is lazy and does not take her job seriously. In fact, the employee has had car trouble and must use unreliable public transportation to get to work.
When you avoid making assumptions, you get all the information you need before deciding anything. With the right information, you can see the problem clearly rather than focusing on its consequences or mistaking them for the real problem. Then you can work toward a satisfactory solution. For instance, when the manager realizes that transportation is the real problem, she might be able to help the employee find another way to work rather than reprimand her for being lazy.
Accept the problem for what it is. When you stop resisting, you put more energy into finding solutions.
Think It Through
To help you distinguish between problems and their symptoms or consequences, think it through. Ask yourself, "What is really happening?" Look at the problem carefully to see if there is a cause lurking underneath or if it is going to result in another problem or set of problems. Thinking it through allows you not only to define the issue(s) you face now, but can help you anticipate a problem or problems (see Lesson 7 for more information about predicting problems).
Defining a Problem within a Group
If it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between real and perceived problems on your own, the difficulty is much greater when you are told of a problem by someone else. For instance, your boss asks you to call a meeting for all paralegals to explain how to correct the problem of poor communication. "Why aren't Kyle's e-mails getting read by the attorneys on time?" he asks.
Often, pinpointing the real problem involves figuring out if the right question is being asked. The boss's question implies that he somehow wants the paralegals to change the way they send e-mails. But after checking things out, Kyle discovers that the lawyers just don't check their e-mails often enough. So the problem can't be solved by asking, "What can the paralegals do differently?" It can be solved by asking, "How can we get the attorneys to read their e-mails more frequently?"
When you are certain you are dealing with a real problem and you must solve it in or as a group, you must lead others to see that real problem. Some may be focused on the symptoms or consequences of it, while others may have made assumptions about the problem. In order to find a successful solution, everyone needs to clearly understand the problem.
Roadblock to Defining a Problem
Often the biggest impediment to defining a problem is speed. When you are busy, especially on the job, you may be tempted to simply deal with superficial evidence, especially when it comes in the form of an aggravation or irritation. In such as case, you act quickly, rather than stop to look and see if the problem is merely the symptom of a larger or more serious issue.
However, what seems like a time saver (quickly resolving an aggravating situation) could actually cost you more time in the long run. If you have mistakenly identified the symptoms of a problem as the true problem, as stated earlier in this lesson, then your solution will be inadequate and the real problem will still be there.
In addition to wasting time by focusing on the false problem, you should keep in mind that there are many instances when doing the right thing is actually faster and simpler that dealing with the symptoms of a problem. For instance, in the elevator scenario described previously, the real problem is that the tenants do not like the effect the extra floors have on their elevator use. When the problem is defined this way, you eliminate expensive and complicated solutions such as where to buy faster elevators or how to construct additional elevator shafts.
Solving problems is mainly a skill of recognizing patterns and then using techniques you've seen before.
Effective problem solving begins with the identification of the real problem, as opposed to the perceived problem. Do not allow the size of the problem, your own assumptions, or a lack of information stand between you and an effective solution. Think the situation through, and do not be tempted to deal quickly with consequences or symptoms of your problem instead of the actual one.
Skill Building Until Next Time
Have you ever tried to follow a recipe, only to discover three steps into it that you're missing an ingredient or that the food will need to cool in the refrigerator overnight? Always read instructions thoroughly before you begin any process so you have all the information, and utensils, you need.
The next time you try a new recipe or set up equipment, like a DVD player or a new bookcase, spend at least ten minutes reading and reviewing the instructions first. Effective problem solving happens when you know exactly what you're facing. Skill Building Until Next Time
Exercises for this concept can be found at Defining a Problem Practice Exercises.
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