This is a continuation of the thinking I did when I wrote Decision-Making 1, you may want to read that essay before reading this one.
Today I want to discuss one of the common pitfalls in Decision-Making, and this is framing the problem statement, understanding the root causes, and only then coming up with solutions.
Far too often, we have an earliness to jump into a problem without really thinking about it, and straight away coming up with solutions. It’s no surprise really, it feels productive, action-oriented, and like things are moving forwards. Unfortunately, this can often lead to sub-optimal solutions or in some cases, make the problem worse.
The problem is that the person who first defines the problem often ends up dictating the problem to be solved. This can significantly backfire when we end up spending large amounts of time, money and energy solving the wrong problem, all because we didn’t take the time to define the problem correctly.
This is important because the way we describe and define a problem significantly affects the range of solutions that we see. So, before we accept a problem, we need a strategy to ensure that we are tackling the right problem.
So we need to fight this tendency to go into “solutions” mode right away and spend some time understanding the problem, and ensuring that it is the right problem to solve. Otherwise, we just end up doing something, instead of doing the right thing.
We end up fighting fires instead of preventing them.
We can dramatically improve our decision-making skills if we learn always to challenge the key assumptions that we are working on, and ensure that we are on solid ground before making a decision. Experts can be of great value to provide a starting place to evaluate a specific problem or decision, but they are not a way to skip doing some of the hard thinking yourself.
So, the key skill is to identify and frame a problem statement correctly. There are two key ways to shift the odds in your favor that you are framing a problem correctly:
1. Don’t ever accept someone’s definition of a problem upfront without doing your own thinking.
2. Place a gap between defining the problem and defining the solutions. This often means something as simple as having two meetings instead of one and putting them one day apart.
This also allows you to sleep on the problem, which has many benefits. During sleep, the brain takes the time to process information and make connections that we might not have made when we were focused on the problem. Also, once we have a better understanding of the problem, it becomes much easier to come up with creative solutions.
Some specific techniques can help in correctly framing a problem statement:
1. The 5 Whys: This is a simple but powerful technique, where you keep asking “why” until you get to the root cause of a problem.
2. The Laddering Technique: This is a more structured way of getting to the root cause of a problem, and involves starting with the observable symptoms, and then working backward to find the underlying causes.
3. The Pre-Mortem: This is a technique you can use before making a decision, where you imagine that the decision has failed, and then work backward to understand why.
I like the The 5 Whys method because it is so straightforward that even a child can use it. The 5 Whys method was first used by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. He just kept asking why until he got to the root cause of the problem.
Here’s an example:
Problem: My car won’t start
1. Why? – The battery is flat
2. Why? – I left the lights on all night
3. Why? – I was in a hurry this morning and forgot to turn them off
4. Why? – I’m running late for an important meeting
5. Why? – I didn’t plan my time well yesterday and didn’t get everything done that I needed to
This is a really trivial example, but you can see how this technique can help us drill down to any problem’s root cause. So the real problem here was not an issue with the car, but that we need to plan our time better to avoid these types of mistakes in the future.
So, next time you’re presented with a problem, take a step back, and ask yourself why — five times!
All of the above techniques are useful in helping us to correctly frame a problem statement and ensure that we are solving the right problem. By taking the time to do this, we can avoid making decisions that waste time, money, and energy, and instead focus on making decisions that will have the biggest impact.
There are other benefits of taking the time to get the problem statement right. One is that it allows you to develop a much better understanding of what is going on, and what might be causing the problem. This can lead to some really creative solutions that you would never have thought of if you just went straight into solution mode.
It also helps develop a shared understanding of the problem, which is essential when working with others. If everyone doesn’t have the same understanding of the problem, then it becomes very difficult to make good decisions, because you are all working off of different information.
For personal decisions, where you (hopefully!) do not have to attend any meetings, it is worth just writing down your thoughts and the framing of the problem on paper or on a diary, and then letting those thoughts marinate, and then go back and do another writing session. Try and be as articulate as possible when exploring the problem, and you’ll find that with enough practice, your brain will start to dig deeper than you thought possible.
One great question to ask yourself, and this works for any type of problem, is the following:
What would have to be true for this problem not to exist?
This immediately forces your brain to start thinking about the root causes of a problem rather than just the symptoms.
And a way to double-check that you are indeed focussing on the root cause of a problem is to ask the follow-up question then:
Will my proposed solution stand the test of time? Or, will this problem occur again at a later date?
This can be harder than it looks, especially because often a problem seems so large that the available resources would never be enough even to start solving it, regardless of how good your decision-making is. But, this is where seeing things from a different perspective can help because, quite often the root problem is easier to solve than all the various resulting symptoms.
An obvious example is all the huge health complications that come from eating a bad diet and ending up suffering from obesity and diabetes. The downstream consequences are lots and lots of various health complications, and eventually daily blood sugar monitoring, insulin injections, eventual amputations, and death.
But, the root cause is quite simple – eating too much sugar! And, if we can solve that problem, then all of the downstream consequences will disappear.
And the solution is straightforward, even if it is very difficult to stay consistent! You just need to eat mostly fresh food that is not processed, and you’ll avoid 95% of health complications that arise from the modern convenience diet.
Of course, it is not so simple when talking about societal problems like poverty or crime. But, even in these cases, thinking about the problem’s root cause can help clarify where resources should be focused.
For example, if we want to reduce crime, we could focus on building more prisons or hiring more police officers. But, if we want to reduce crime in the long-term, we need to focus on the root causes of crime: poverty, poor education, and a lack of opportunity.
If we just build more prisons and hire more police officers, then we are treating the symptoms of crime, not the root cause. So, even though it might seem like we are making progress in the short term, things will just keep getting worse in the long term.
On the other hand, if we focus on the root causes of crime, we can make real progress in reducing crime in society, because we are addressing the underlying problems that lead to crime in the first place.
Of course, this is just a very simple example, and in reality, things are usually much more complex. But, the principle remains the same: if you want to make good decisions, you need to take the time to understand the problem and focus on the root cause rather than just the symptoms.
Don’t look for solutions that have a high signal value, but do not solve the root cause, because you’ll end up fighting the same battles repeatedly, without ever solving the underlying causes.
If you are tackling a problem in an organization, get a written agreement on the actual problem, and build consensus on how the problem is described. A clever way to get clarity is to ask each person in your team to write the precise problem they are solving in their own words. You’ll often be surprised when you compare notes when you realize that each person has a slightly different understanding of the problem — and then you can work to build a clear, concise, and shared understanding.
Only once you have a shared understanding of the problem can you hope to find a shared solution that everyone is happy with. Otherwise, you’ll end up with many people working on their own little part of the problem without making any real progress.
The main takeaway from all this is that it is very important to take the time to understand the root cause of a problem rather than just focus on the symptoms. This is not always easy, but it is essential if you want to make good decisions that will lead to lasting change.
A good problem statement has the following:
- A clear description of the problem
- The root cause of the problem
- The downstream consequences of the problem
- The people who are affected by the problem
- What’s blocking us from solving the problem?
By consistently focussing on only solving root causes, we can get the biggest returns on our efforts over time, rather than just treating symptoms that will only give us temporary relief.
So let’s summarize:
- Separate identifying the problem and finding the solution.
- Ask yourself what would have to be true for this problem not to exist in the first place.
- See whether solving the problem would stand the test of time.
- Get agreement on what the root problem is from everyone involved.
- Have a clear problem statement.
- Don’t solve symptoms; solve root causes.
- Get your team on board from the beginning instead of during implementation.