Tips from the Authors
The Importance of Problem Definition
Getting a clear definition of the problem you are solving is the critical starting point to bulletproof problem solving. One word of advice is take the time upfront to get the problem statement right.
In a recent problem-solving session with non-profits, 13% of the participants thought they needed help with problem definition before the class, compared to 67% of the participants after the class.
A surprising number of failures in problem solving originate in poor problem definition. Rushing into analysis with a vague problem statement is a clear formula for long hours and frustrated clients. This step may appear constraining, but it leads to the clarity of purpose essential for good problem solving.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”.
– Albert Einstein
Good problem statements have a number of characteristics. They are:
- Outcomes focused: A clear statement of the problem to be solved, expressed in outcomes, not activities or intermediate outputs.
- Specific and measurable where possible.
- Clearly time-bound.
- Designed to explicitly address decision-maker values and boundaries, including the accuracy needed and the scale of aspirations.
- Structured to allow sufficient scope for creativity and unexpected results – too narrowly scoped problems can artificially constrain solutions.
- Solved at the highest level possible, meaning for the organisation as a whole, not just optimized for a part of a partial solution.
Problem Definition Statement in Action
One example from Rob’s time at McKinsey & Company, was when his team were asked to review a $6 billion capital equipment investment plan for a large steel company. The problem appeared straight forward: Evaluate the costs and benefits of each investment over time. However, when they dug into the data, they discovered that the larger issue was one of an inability to generate cash because of an uncompetitive cost position, a much more pressing issue than the planned investments in new plant and machinery. The team’s findings convinced the client to first address costs and attack the lack of cash generation by the business. They needed to lower overhead costs substantially and select only a fraction of the projects slated for investment to be successful. With these changes, the business was able to generate cash to survive.
When possible, it is advantageous to allow flexibility in the scope or width of your problem-solving project. Narrowly scoped projects make for fast problem solving, but they often lead to keeping the blinders on by employing conventional conceptions of the problem space.
The takeaway point with all this is clear: Getting problem definition right, including boundaries, is essential to good problem solving and can be an essential competitive advantage.