Staying in the question – shifting from problem identification to framing

“Don’t come to me with a problem, unless you also have a solution.” I got a version of that advice early in my career and I’ve dispensed it as well. It’s become bad advice.

The good part of the advice is that simply pointing at a problem isn’t terribly helpful. The trickier part is that seeing an apparent problem going unaddressed can’t be taken as evidence that everyone around you is stupid. More likely than not, it’s a clue that obvious solutions won’t work for reasons that you are too ignorant or inexperienced to grasp. The unstated premise is that experience consists of developing a repertoire of problem recognition patterns and corresponding solutions.

As our inventory of known problems and matching solutions grows, the remaining problems are more complex and demand a level of matching complexity in their solutions. This is the realm of design thinking. Second, this rising complexity also changes the problem-solving process. What was a process of problem identification and solution selection has become a process of problem framing and solution design.

Problem framing is qualitatively different from problem identification. Identification is a diagnostic process; a collection of presenting symptoms points to a finite set of possible diagnoses listed in order of likelihood. Framing is a more exploratory and interactive process; powerful questions turn into experimental probes to discover the boundaries of the problem space and the efficacy of possible interventions.

At the heart of this framing process is the patience to “stay in the question” long enough to map the boundaries and to calibrate the power and precision of interventions. Insisting on rapid problem identification and solution selection limits the opportunities to discover and design breakthrough innovations.

The hardest aspect of “staying in the question” is managing the pressure to get on with it; the bias for action that characterizes the best organizations. Taking time out to think is not typically valued or rewarded. Analysis paralysis is a real risk. Staying in the question is not about the depth or precision of answers; it is about asking better questions to illuminate choice points, mark out new directions, and identify more options.

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