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Problem solving.  Chances are if I were to query Product Management leaders, a majority would intimate they were good at it. After all, it is one of the fundamental premises of the role, isn’t it?  There generally is no shortage of challenges, frequently on a daily basis, were input is needed, decisions are necessary, and direction is given.

And yet as this HBR article Are You Solving the Right Problems? points out 85% of C-level executives feel their organizations are bad at it.  How could the problem of problem solving be a problem in and of itself?

What I have found over my career is people generally have good intentions and want to do things right.  There are of course exceptions to the rule, and hopefully the bad apples get weeded out accordingly. But doing things right doesn’t necessarily translate to success if you are chasing the wrong problem.  As the title of the article points out, it’s not about doing things right … it’s about doing the right things.

“…spurred by a penchant for action, managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.”

I’ve seen this countless times over my career, and several times over the past year where solution mode trumped understanding the problem

  • example 1 – in working with a team who was relying on us to meet a goal, the solution mode request was repeatedly “we’ve been asking for the [Y] files for months, will you please get us access to them?” But when I took the time to understand the problem, the specific data points the team was looking for were not even contained in those files.
  • example 2 – in looking at a specific capability in the context of a broader new strategy, the solution mode approach yielded an architecture that would indeed solve the problem based upon what the team knew and were comfortable with today … but it would be relying on technology that had been around since the 90s [file based transmission].  Understanding the problem what is needed is a more current, relevant API-based approach.

The article provides a wealth of information focused on problem solving, reframing, and even a reference to the 5-Whys Questioning Technique.

As usual, I’d highly recommend you dig into the article yourself, but here is a summary of the seven practices for effective reframing it offers:

  1. Establish legitimacy. [PH thoughts] – in general, people think they are doing things right.  It is important to create the conversational space to explain how reframing differs from merely diagnosing a problem and how it can potentially create dramatically better results.
  2. Bring outsiders into the discussion. [PH thoughts] -admittedly I struggled here early in my career thinking I had to not only identify the problem by myself, but also come forth with the right solution.  As you can imagine, it rarely yielded the success I was looking for.
  3. Get people’s definitions in writing. [PH thoughts] – Yes, yes, yes!  The article states It’s not unusual for people to leave a meeting thinking they all agree on what the problem is after a loose oral description, only to discover weeks or months later that they had different views of the issue. Been burned on this one before.
  4. Ask what’s missing. [PH thoughts] – this goes back to the 5-Whys … or better yet, have a look at this post about Starting with Why.
  5. Consider multiple categories. [PH thoughts] – a good suggestion not to get too attached to one idea … explore many … Is it an incentive problem? An expectations problem? An attitude problem?
  6. Analyze positive exceptions. [PH thoughts] – another good suggestion when the conversation gets too short-term oriented too quickly … find the example where the the problem did not occur and ask “What was different about that situation?”
  7. Question the objective. [PH thoughts] – The elevator example is a really simple way of countering the notion a single root problem exists; problems are typically multicausal and can be addressed in many ways.

Original problem

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Reframing the problem

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