The importance of not leaping into solutions before understanding the problem

A recurring theme has been going around in my head lately and this has been reinforced on two separate occasions this last few days. This is about reaching conclusions about a solution before identifying the problem.

The first occasion that cropped up lately for me was in an article in the Observer on Sunday 20 March 2011, written by Neal Ascherson, questioning whether we are addressing the right problems in reaching solutions, and quoting examples in both Libya and Japan. In this he also quotes someone he met who said that “As an engineer, I can tell you the root of all human mistakes. It’s people putting things right, before they have finished finding out what’s wrong”.

The other occasion was a more personal situation in which I had needed to request an intervention from a contractor to see what was causing a blockage at home. What was interesting is that he assumed what the problem was and immediately starting ‘solving’ it. The problem did not go away and he had to be called back in. This time I had to insist that the problem needed more  investigating before assuming the solution. We got there finally. Although it cost two visits and more money.

Both of these examples underline for me, as in the quote earlier, that we all too often leap to a conclusion based on our own perception and assumptions, and end up solving the wrong problem, which in its turn at best continues the problem, at worst intensifies the situation so the problem gets worse.

My solution to this? Well its an approach used in creative problem solving, that is taking time to ensure that the problem is fully understood before attempting to even suggest solutions.

Various techniques can help here, although I favour using imagery and mapping of a problem which can often unlock a broader perception and offer different ways of seeing the problem before moving to possible solutions. One my favourite techniques here would be drawing a rich picture of the problem which contains all the elements of the situation. Doing this collaboratively and listening to co-workers also working on the same problem can offer a rich way of gaining fresh perception and understanding.

What techniques have you used to explore problems before reaching for solutions?

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2 Replies to “The importance of not leaping into solutions before understanding the problem”

  1. Hi Barbara

    You make a good point.. however having worked for one very large organisation where we were forever analysing, and asking for ideas before ‘solving’ a problem.. I put ‘solving’ in brackets because quite frankly often I didn’t think there was a problem.. it was just a desire by senior management to introduce (yet) more the time we got anywhere near a solution, or best likely outcome I should say, the problem would often have moved on.. you can’t stop the wheels from turning as they say..and in business today that is even more true.. I think for many organisations it wouldn’t be so difficult to work with as they would not be so large, so complex, and have so many conflicting objectives.

    1. Hi Melanie
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, it is easy to get into loops with this type of thinking. However the process I work with would enable a set amount of time to just explore; whether there is a problem, what that is, sharing of different perceptions etc before addressing the problem. Often what we think or label a problem is not one so much as an issue which is perceived differently by different people and when this is aired, then moving forward can happen.

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