3 tips that will help you better define a problem

Mission Viejo

Takeru Kobayashi (Photo credit: yamchild)

If you start with the wrong problem, it’s unlikely you’ll ever arrive at an effective solution.

Think about a problem you’d really like to solve, and before you spend a lot of time and energy trying to solve that problem, first define exactly what the problem is. Or better yet, redefine the problem.

In the video below, Stephen Dubmner talks about Takeru Kobayashi, a hot-dog-eating champion, and how he thought long and hard with a lot of experimentation about how to win a competitive eating contest. It is an example of how think though problems by asking the right questions from his new book Think Like A Freak.

Takeru Kobayashi, instead of asking himself, “How do I eat more hot dogs?” he asked, “How do I make hot dogs easier to eat?”

As you’ll hear in the video, his solution was to take the hot dog out of the bun, break it in two easier to chew pieces, and, while eating those, dunking the bun in hot water. He then eats the bun, and, voila–down the hatch it all goes.

Takeru Kobayashi knew how to ask the right questions. By doing so, he redefined his problem and tackled an issue that his competitors had overlooked.

How do you ask the right questions to find the right answer?

One of the most common reasons that programs, products, services and change initiatives don’t work is that the wrong question has been asked. It is very easy to start off with obvious and often incorrect problem statements. And then time, energy and money is spent on going straight to the solution without putting any thought as to what that solution is really trying to accomplish.

Innovation is as much about attitude and perspective than it is about process, and shifting perspective by asking better questions is a very powerful way to discover insights that are hidden in plain view.

I’ve written previously about how to define a problem, but I still get lots of questions about it. Defining a problem is the most important step in the innovation process because it’s where you decide what you’ll do. And the question that suddenly unblocks your thinking is exhilarating and can take you to unforeseen places!

Honestly, defining a problem is not easy and it doesn’t come natural to most people.

So, how do you define a problem?

Adding to my previous approach to defining a problem, here are some more tips:

Turn statements into questions

In many creative and innovation facilitation circles there is a high emphasis in constructing problem statements, but most of the time they are useless because they are static and don’t invite any answers.

For example, a common issue in business is we don’t have a large salesforce. Turn that statement into a question such as though we don’t have a big team, what capabilities of a large sales force do we have and how might we best use them?

Define your objective in the broadest terms

As stated before, people and teams usually jump into action without putting much thought beforehand. So, a good tripwire to stop yourself from going into mindless mode is to ask yourself the following question: What are we really trying to accomplish?

For example, instead of saying we need a new tire, it may be better to say, we need a tire that won’t wear off after burnouts from an 800+ bhp engine.

Better defining the problem focuses the mind on new opportunities for solving it.

Ask different variations of the initial question

Defining a problem comes down to asking different variations of the question to expand the scope of your thinking. It is very effective to use notes from your key themes/topics from your immersive work that you did while trying to understand the context in which the solution exists or will exist. Also, the intent is to create questions that will invite long lists of answers, not close down the conversation.

For example, suppose that your question is how might we make better team decisions? Now turn this into how might we stop making bad decisions? How might we know when we are about to make a bad decision? How can we reduce the number of bad decisions we make?

Bottom line: Throughout history, great thinkers have recognized that the single most important step a person can take in thinking creatively is to find the right question. Again, defining a problem takes lots of mental effort. And it is best if you allocate time to broadly defining the problem you are trying to address before the start of any project because most of the time you really need to redefine the problem you’re trying to solve in order to ask a better question to get better answers.

If you have any questions or need help defining and/or reframing a challenge, let me know!

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