Why problem-focused thinking results in better solutions

Problem focused thinkingA couple of years ago I attended an event where one of the speakers, a senior executive from a big technology company, told us about the time she was on the judging panel for a children’s innovation competition.

Among the many fascinating ideas pitched to the judges, there was one that really stood out. The presentation was made by girl, no more than eight or nine years old, who started off with the words “the problem I am trying to solve is this…”. She then went on to explain the problem, before presenting her solution to the wowed panel.

I love this story, simply because that little girl did something that very few of us do, which was to start with the problem, rather than jumping straight into the solution.

It’s a great example of problem-focused thinking and the speaker herself commented that she wished more of her team would focus their attention towards the problem that needed to be solved, instead of just talking about features and capabilities.

In effect she had too many solutions-focused thinkers and not enough problem-focused thinkers.

Understanding the constraints solutions-focused thinking

I come across a lot of solutions-focused thinking in my work. It usually starts with “I’ve had a great idea to do this…” or “we need to build xyz feature as soon as possible…”.

All to often people dive straight into a solution, without considering whether it is appropriate for the situation. This can be driven by the need to respond quickly to a crisis, or a customer request or a competitor move; but it can also be the result of our natural human instinct to think optimistically and solve the problems that are put in front of us.

I include myself in this cohort, being just as susceptible to solutions-first thinking as anyone else and have often rushed in with a decision or over-simplified a situation; only realising afterwards it was the wrong approach and kicking myself (repeatedly) for not taking the time to think it all through. I guess it is what Kahneman describes as the difference between thinking fast and slow.

The case for problem-focused thinking

Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with thinking about solutions (after all problems need to be solved), it is just a question of when we think about them.

If you are feeling ill and go to the doctors, the first thing the doctor will do is diagnose the problem. Only when she has ascertained the cause of the illness, will she prescribe a treatment. This simple approach can be the difference between life and death for the patient, so the consequences of not following the process are severe.

Yet in the business world, people are happy to invest huge amounts of time and money on what is often no more than a gut instinct. This is known as the Innovators Bias where somebody has an idea and then develops an emotional attachment towards it, and I’m willing to bet you’ve seen your fair share of pet projects pushed through to development by senior stakeholders, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting the idea is flawed!

Ok, so in the business world building the wrong solution might not result in a life or death situation, but there is an opportunity cost for everything that you commit to and betting on the wrong horse can result in reputational damage, loss of market share, poor staff morale and a host of other negative outcomes.

This is why it makes sense to adopt the doctor’s approach of performing a problem diagnosis, before deciding on a solution – effectively becoming a problem-focused thinker.

Becoming a problem-focused thinker

Because it is our natural tendency to think in terms of solutions, it can be hard to get into the habit of slowing down our thought process and taking a more analytical approach.

Even though I am aware of the problems with solutions-focused thinking, I still revert back to it without realising – especially when I’m under pressure to get something done.

However there are a couple of techniques that I’ve found to be very helpful for changing my behaviour.

The first is to use problem statements. These are simple, concise statements that explain the problem, the cause and the impact. They are a great way to frame the problem and enable other people to quickly get on the same page as you.

I use problem statements in a variety of places, such as business cases and as part of Agile user stories, and have always found the process of writing them a great way to think of about the problem in detail.

The other technique (which should be used in close collaboration with problem statements) is the Five Whys root cause analysis, which can be used to get beyond the immediate symptoms of the problem and drill down to discover the underlying cause.

Thinking about problems is about being realistic and not pessimistic

One final point to be clear about; being a problem-focused thinker does not mean you are a pessimistic or negative person. This is often the perception, especially as people prefer the optimism of solutions, rather than dwelling on the problem.

However this is simply not the case; so it is important to remember that problem-focused thinkers are not negative and in fact are actually more pro-active than solutions-focused thinkers – simply because they are taking the time to step back and assess the situation before identifying the most appropriate solution.

As Albert Einstein is well quoted as saying “a problem well-defined is half solved”.

Good luck 🙂