Problem Solving

Defining Problems: The Most Important Business Skill You've Never Been Taught

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Albert Einstein once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” While that may sound extreme, it does highlight the importance of defining problems. It also hints at some interesting facts: A well-defined problem often contains its own solution within it, and that solution is usually quite obvious and straightforward. By defining problems properly, you make them easier to solve, which means saving time, money and resources.

Related: 3 Reasons Why You Are Failing at Problem Solving

Every businessperson needs to master the ability to define problems, or challenges, but very few MBA programs, leadership development programs or management training programs teach this indispensable skill. I spoke to a group of 80 HR managers recently and asked if any of them had been taught how to define problems. Only one person raised a hand. That’s common to most business groups I speak with on a weekly basis. Less than 1 percent of the workforce has been taught how to define problems.

During my first five years as a coach, I didn’t know how to define problems properly, but in the ten years since, I’ve learned this critical technique. I use it every single day, with every single client. It has transformed how I work with people and has made the work much more impactful. These days, clients will hire me solely based on the fact that I have the ability to define their problems during our very first conversation together. When I hear them begin to differentiate between issues, asking, “Which problem are we solving?” I know that I’ve made a major impact on their business.

Related: Problem Solved

Defining problems is simple and any difficulty that arises is because it requires patience, repetition and thorough examination. It is the most important element of critical thinking.

You can define problems correctly in just three steps I call the Problem Definition Filter:

1. Explore the current situation. Paint a picture in words by including the “presenting problem,” the impact it is having, the consequences of not solving the problem, and the emotions the problem is creating for those involved.

2. Explain. Once you have examined and clearly explained the situation, draft a simple problem statement by filling in the blank: The problem that we are trying to solve is: ___________. Distill the problem to its simplest form possible.

3. Ask yourself. “Why is that a problem?” If the answer is another problem, then congratulate yourself for moving from the “presenting problem” to a deeper problem. Then ask yourself again, “Why is that a problem?” Do that repeatedly until you either land on what is obviously the source of all of the problems you’ve identified or you identify unexpected consequences of not solving the problem. If you land on unexpected consequences, the problem you identified right before that is likely your “source problem.”

Toyota famously created the "five why’s'' technique for their Six Sigma process improvement program. While that number was limited to five why’s, the truth is sometimes it takes only one why. Other times, it may take 17. Ask as many times as needed until you get to the source problem.

This high-level overview of the Problem Definition Filter can help you learn how to define the problems in your department or business and determine if you’re wasting time and resources on poorly defined problems. When it comes to determining whether you have defined a problem well, ask yourself or your collaborators if the solution to the problem is obvious or straightforward. Also, ask if it is a problem worth solving -- many problems aren’t.

Related: Creative Problem-Solving Strategies to Test Your Business Idea