At the beginning of a project, I’m always eager to dive right in. If you’re like me, you’ve got a predisposed bias for action – a compulsive need to get things done, to hustle, and to drive results. Moving with speed and a sense of urgency is important, but sometimes that bias for action can get in your way. It might be a cliche, but sometimes you really do need to go slow before you can go fast. In other words, taking the time to pause the action in order to better understand the problem can help ensure what we do will be effective and sustained over time. Said more simply, problem understanding must come before problem solving. Here are three ways to improve your approach to problem solving:
- Zoom Out
- Make Connections
Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson often describes a famous photo of the Earth that was taken from space during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, called Earthrise. According to Tyson, historians and scientists believe that this photo had a major impact on our history because, in many ways, it allowed us to understand how small and lonely our little planet was floating out there in space. For example, after the photo is seen on Earth, the green movement gains speed, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts are passed, and much more – all of these were made possible because we gained understanding of a much larger picture. By taking a step back and zooming out, we can force ourselves into a different perspective and see things we hadn’t previously considered. In business, we would benefit from a similar thought process. For example, if we only look within a specific function or silo, we might miss the fact that the problem also impacts other areas across the company. Zooming out can help you identify the full scope of a problem and help you capitalize on a much larger opportunity. During this phase of analyzing the problem, you should be asking questions like:
- What is the big picture strategy or long-term vision?
- What benchmarking or external benchmarking could we do?
- What trends might reframe this situation in the future?
- What don’t I have visibility to from my current vantage point?
- How might I zoom out and get a different perspective?
Remember the Rubik’s Cube? It’s a multi-sided puzzle that requires you to examine all sides in order to find a solution. If you complete only the green side, you haven’t solved the full puzzle, and what’s worse, you might have messed up the solution you put in place on the yellow or blue sides. Problems can often seem local on the surface, which is why we need to broaden our understanding by considering the upstream and downstream impacts of our actions (i.e. what we do over here might unintentionally impact something else over there!). Now, consider any major organization: take a step back and you’ll see a similarly complex puzzle. When you consider the system in its entirety you’re more likely to make a lasting impact. When analyzing a problem, it’s critical to understand how all sides of the puzzle work together, so consider asking questions like:
- What are the inputs to this process and who controls them?
- What outputs from this process are used by other partners? Why?
- What dependencies exist?
- What happens if we do nothing?
- If we change x-variable, how is y-variable impacted?
With time and practice, everyone can improve their root cause problem solving skills, but you’ll never have all of the answers. The best way to expand your perspective and get more information is to listen and learn from others, taking the time to gain new insights from how they see the problem. Truly, listening is so much more than just hearing what people are saying. You need to engage your entire being and all of your senses in order to get a sense for what’s really going on. Use the power of empathy to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world and the problem from their perspective. Identify people who can give you a different perspective on the situation:
- Who might be able to give me an unfiltered assessment of what’s going on?
- How might I learn more about what people are feeling/thinking/seeing/saying about the problem?
- What’s not being said?
- Who might be able to share the history of this process or situation?
- What value does this process or situation deliver to customers?
Over the last several years of working with clients and helping them solve their most pressing business and talent challenges, I’ve learned from both success and failure. And, those bumps along the road – they helped me become a better problem solver. I’ve learned, for example, to simmer in the discomfort and ambiguity of the unknown in order to explore things like the risks, benefits, challenges, and assumptions that surround the issue at hand. We need to resist the temptation to jump to a solution, and instead focus on deepening our understanding. Albert Einstein is credited with saying: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” So, the next time you’re staring down the impossible: zoom out, make connections, and listen:
- How might I take a step back and get a different perspective or additional information? (zoom out)
- How might I understand the dependencies, risks, inputs, and outputs of the total system at work? (make connections)
- How can I hear from the people actually impacted by this problem? (listen)
How do you unpack problems? I’d love to learn from you and hope you share in the comments section!