What problem are we trying to solve?

Lever“Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the Earth” doesn’t work if you are standing in the wrong place.

It’s tempting to focus on the lever—to make it longer or stronger or out of some new  material. What you aren’t likely to do is take the lever you’ve got and look for a new place to stand. Nor are you likely to ask whether a lever is the relevant tool.

One of the courses I teach is on Requirements Analysis and Communications. The goal is to equip students with the tools to articulate a problem with  enough detail and precision that a effective solution can be designed and implemented. That phrasing is awkward because all too common practice is to define problems in terms of known solutions.

It’s the inverse of children with hammers pounding everything as if it were a nail. It’s claiming you have a nail to be pounded because someone with a hammer has come along.

None of this is any easier in a world rife with voices clamoring that they have the magic hammer for X.

Everybody has an answer. Everybody is selling a solution. Everybody has a hammer.

How do you learn

  • to take the time
  • to ask the questions
  • that will define the problem first?

The root question is always “what problem are we trying to solve?” The first several rounds of answers to that direct question are always statements of a solution, which is not a statement of a problem.

Asking effective questions is a learnable skill. I can give you a list of useful questions and I can lay out a process for asking them. But, what you really need is an opportunity to observe effective questioning in action, to practice in a safe environment, and to get feedback.

What I’m describing, of course, is the case method—either law school of business school flavor—or problem-based learning. What’s less emphasized is that these are inquiry processes; they are about questions, not answers. That makes them frustrating when you’re accustomed to being rewarded for answers, whether in school or in life.

The way out of that frustration is to understand the goal is building a skill not parroting an answer.

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