Solving Problems—What Problems?

Vesa Purho
Development Manager, Nokia

You have a problem to solve, what do you do? Do you gather up a team of people and start thinking about the possible solutions for the problem, or do you try to solve the problem by yourself. My advice is that you do not do either of those but start by actually defining what the problem is.

In many meetings and discussions where we have tried to solve a problem or resolve a conflict, I have noticed at some point that it seems like people are throwing in all kinds of ideas that have nothing to do with the issue we are discussing. In some cases, we end up with a solution that everybody recognizes is not the optimal one, but we could not come up with anything better. The issue in either case may be that we are not actually solving the same problem or that we do not understand the root cause for the problem, but try to just cure some symptoms.

First, clearly state the problem you are trying to solve so that everyone is talking about the same problem. The best way is to actually write a problem statement and share it with everybody before proceeding to solve the problem. It is also useful to state the current situation and the goal you are trying to reach to identify the gap. It will be easier to analyze the possible solutions to the problem according to how much they help in closing the gap.

Creating the problem statement is a bit like planning: on the surface it may seem like a waste of time because you are not actually creating any solutions, but in the end, it will save you a lot of time during the process, when people are focused on the same problem instead of different ones. Also, the solution will be more effective when you have identified the root cause, and you are not trying just to cure symptoms. A couple of examples might help you see the point.

We held one meeting to gather some ideas on how we could increase our user understanding. Before we started to brainstorm ideas, I asked, “Why do we need to increase our user understanding? What is it that we are trying to do with the increased user understanding?” After a lively discussion, we came to the conclusion that, at that time, our main driver was to increase customer satisfaction. After we had established that need, including the current situation and the goal, we started brainstorming solutions on how to increase customer satisfaction. We did end up having several ideas for increasing user understanding but we also came up with multiple ideas to increase customer satisfaction by other means.

In another meeting, we discussed how to do versioning of modules in our new content-management solution. Our initial discussion centered on the possible solutions that had come up in various meetings until one person asked, “For what purpose do we need versioning?” It seemed initially a silly question as many had strong thoughts based on our previous systems but after a short discussion it became obvious that we did have clear use cases for different types of versions and branches, which many of us were not actually aware of, or at least we had never thought of them so systematically. After that was clear, we were able to come up with a very consistent and effective solution that would also be clear for the writers.

How does one go about establishing the actual problem? As in so many other cases, “why” is a powerful word. Just ask “why” a couple of times to find the root cause. If you are not sure that people are solving the same problem, ask everybody to write down their ideas on what they think the problem is and then have everybody present their ideas to the group. You are most likely to get surprisingly different viewpoints. Then you have to agree on a common understanding so that everybody works with the same problem. When you have established the problem, write it down and put it in a visible place or otherwise make sure that everybody comes back to it every now and then during the problem-solving process to keep them focused. For example, during the process of finding ways to increase customer satisfaction, we often fell too deeply into the discussion of increasing user understanding because that was the initial reason the meeting was called. Even if you are working just on your own, it is useful to ask the “why” questions and write down the problem statements so that you keep focused on the real issues.

If the problem is a complicated one, you should also look at it from many different viewpoints, gather data, and perhaps try to visualize it somehow before proceeding to the creation of solutions. Don’t hesitate to spend a reasonably long time in defining the problem; the end result will be a more efficient problem-solving process with more effective results.

This article is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion or practice of Nokia.