Monday, December 10, 2012

Are You Solving the Right Problem?

One of the greatest challenges that clients of mine experience is identifying the real challenges that they are facing.

Many times, they have identified the wrong issue as “the problem” and having done so, set out to tackle the wrong issue with solutions that are inappropriate to the real issue.

Here are some examples:

Perceived Problem 1: Too many employees are leaving so I need to find ways to motivate them to stay.

False Solution: I create all kinds of meaningless rah-rah events to encourage them to stay but their departures continue for reasons I don’t understand.

Real Problem: Their departures are a symptom of a deeper issue which is the real problem.  Solving the deeper issue reduces the employee turnover rate as a by-product of solving the primary issue, whether the primary issue is working conditions, salary, opportunities for contribution / growth, etc.

Perceived Problem 2: Workers in the province of “x” are leaving to work in province “y” and so I must find a solution to the problem of outward migration.

False Solution: I launch a promotion campaign showing why province “x” is a better place to live, highlighting the beauty of the province, tugging at the nostalgia heart strings, etc., but the workers  continue to leave anyway.

Real Problem: The outward migration is a symptom of a lack of well-paying jobs in province “x” and having recognized this, we must ask ourselves how to create better-paying jobs at home.  Promoting feel-good solutions don’t address the realities that the employees are forced to deal with, which is why they continue to leave anyway.

Perceived Problem 3: My company is floundering because of a lack of available capital – the classic “more money will solve everything” problem.

False Solution: I will direct all of my energy into raising more capital, not caring about the other side of the equation (the spending side).

Real Problem: There are two sides to the capital equation – how much I raise and how much I spend.  If I don’t control my spending, it doesn’t matter how much I raise, since poor spending behavior will always cause my expenses to outstrip my capital generation potential.

Perceived Problem 4: We have too many people considered as the working poor in our nation.

False Solution: Raise the minimum wage and the problem is solved (or my personal favorite as expressed by one provincial government when they said they would legislate poverty out of existence in 5 to 10 years).

Real Problem: The working poor are dogged not only by lower wages but also by other concerns in the areas of education, affordable housing, self-awareness, self-entitlement, self-perception, laziness (sad but true for a certain percentage of people), spending habits, savings habits, employer biases, misguided or poorly implemented government / charity intentions, mental and physical illness and a number of other areas.  It is a very complex, spider web of problems that a single, simple solution can’t address.

How do we get to the core issues?

There are many techniques that can help us get to the core issues.  The classic problem solving technique of the Five Why’s is often a useful technique to getting to the crux of the real problem.

Here is a simplified example, returning to the originally stated “perceived problem 1”.

Problem: Too many employees are leaving, so I need to find ways to motivate them to stay.

Why is the turnover so high? My employees are not happy

Why are they not happy? They are not feeling fulfilled.

Why are they not feeling fulfilled? They don’t think their contribution matters.

Why don’t they think they matter? Because their ideas are often rejected.

Why are their ideas rejected? Because I (the boss) don’t think their ideas are good enough,

Ahhhhhhh ….. so …. now the problem is not in the employees.

The problem is in me – I am rejecting their ideas.

So if I were to explore this deeper, I would discover that the solution lies somewhere in understanding why I am rejecting their ideas and NOT in producing a series of rah rah events that attempts to put a band aid on the wrong issue.

Get the problem right … and then you have a better chance of getting the answer right.

When confronted by challenge in your personal and professional life, are you solving the right problem or are you putting a lot of energy and band aids into the wrong problem?

How do you know?

Knowing (and not guessing) makes all the difference in the result produced.

In service and servanthood,


PS Check out this interesting course being offered by the University of California, Berkley – Problem Finding, Problem Solving

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