Are You Solving the Right Problem?

At a meeting earlier this week — amid frustration about a recent bureaucratic rule change — one of my colleagues made a rather profound statement. “They are trying to solve the wrong problem!” She was right. (In fact, this problem was an unintended consequence of a previous sweeping decision . . .)

“They are trying to solve the wrong problem.” How does that happen? And have you ever been the “they” in that observation? To answer the second question, probably.

To answer the first question, we have to take a brief dive into systems thinking. Two of the key tenets of systems thinking are the interconnectedness of systems (think circular rather than linear) and the reality that cause and effect can be separated in time and space. In many cases, however, that is not how we think. Most people are short term thinkers — Here is the apparent problem. What is the most logical (linear) conclusion from where I am sitting, and what steps do I need to take to solve the problem?

That “logical” approach is what often leads to trying to solve the wrong problem. For example, say a manufacturing firm suddenly has an increase in accidents because of falls related to liquid on the floor. The linear response might be increased safety training, or reprimanding the employees charged with keeping the facility clean. In all likelihood, that is addressing the wrong problem. The problem may have actually come from four steps back  . . . because purchasing (following the “logical” rule of accepting the lowest bid) got a great deal on gaskets, which were faultly and resulted in increased leaks.

As leaders, we are charged with solving problems quickly and effectively. To do that, we often look at the specific situation and the most immediate solution. We solve the narrowly defined “what” rather than taking the time to identify the more big-picture “why”. It’s a balancing act between speed and depth. So how do you increase the likelihood that you are solving the right problem?

Leading your search for answers with the simple phrase “Help me understand . . .”, and taking your questions to the people closest to the issue (rather than someone sitting in an office somewhere) is the best way to get at the real problem. When you get the answer to your first question, base your next “help me understand” inquiry on that information. You may have to use this approach four or five times, each time moving closer to the real root of the issue, and the “right problem.” It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it does take an open mind to consider that the real cause may be four steps removed from the effect that appears to be the problem.

Your people look to you to solve the challenges before them. The “obvious” answer may or may not resolve your dilemma. It all depends on if you are solving the right problem.

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