The Problem With Problems

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image23082102There are many problems that come with solving problems.  Here are three of the most damaging.

Problem 1: We think there is only one right answer.

The first problem with problems is we think problems have only one answer.  In spite of what we learned in school, nothing can be further from the truth.

Yes, some problems can be convergent, having only one “best” solution.  The more intelligently you study them, the more the answers converge.

However, problems can also be, and most often are, divergent.  The more they are studied, the more contradictory the solutions become.  There are problems for which there is no single solution.  Convergent problems require intelligent inquiry.  Divergent problems require intelligent inquiry and genuine openness.

Problem 2:  We spend too much time finding solutions and not enough time defining the problem.

This happens because we think we already know the problem, and because we think we already know the one and only (remember “convergent”) solution to the problem.  A lot of people have great solutions to the wrong problems.  The following story from Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey Daniels illustrates this problem with problems:

There was once an Indian chicken farmer who lived on the outskirts of Mumbai. For years, he scratched out a reasonable living from raising his chickens and selling both chickens and eggs.

One morning when he went to feed his flock, he noticed several dead chickens. Not knowing what to do, he packed his bags and made a long trek to the Himalayas, climbed a mountain, and found a GURU.

“Oh, guru,” he moaned,” I am a poor chicken farmer. The other morning, I discovered several dead chickens. What should I do?”

“What do you feed them?” asked the guru.

“Wheat. I feed them wheat.”

“That is your problem, my son. Corn! Feed them corn.”

The man paid his tribute to the guru, climbed down the mountain, and journeyed home. When he arrived, he immediately changed the chicken’s feed from wheat to corn. For three weeks, everything went fine. Then one morning, as he went to feed his flock, he found more dead chickens.

He packed his bags, made the trek to the Himalayas, and climbed the mountain once again. “Oh, guru!” he cried. “More of my chickens are dead!”

“How do you give them water?”

“I carved wooden bowls in which I gave them water,”

“Troughs! You need troughs!”

The farmer made the long journey home and built troughs. For six months, everything went along fine. Then one morning, as he went to feed his flock, he found more dead chickens. So, again, he made the trek to guru. “Oh, guru!” he cried. “More of my chickens are dead!”

“How do you house them?”

“I built a wooden shack in which they live.”

“Ventilation! They need more ventilation!”

Back home, the farmer spent a small fortune putting a new ventilation system in his coop. for a year, everything went well. Then one morning, he went out to discover that all of his chickens were dead.

Beside himself with grief, he packed his bags and again made his way to the mountain. “Oh, guru!” he wailed. “All of my chickens are dead!”

“That’s a shame,” replied the guru. “I had a lot more solutions.”

Problem 3: Not all problems need to be solved.

It is also important to understand that not all problems need a solution.  Some things just don’t matter and can become a distraction from focusing on and solving real problems.

So, make sure your definition is of a problem that (1) is an important problem, (2) is an enabling problem (Example of a disabling problem:  “I want to fly by flapping my arms like wings.”  Example of an enabling problem: “I want to get my feet off the ground.”), and finally (3) is the “real” problem.

Once you understand that most problems are divergent and have many solutions, you can then begin looking for a definition of your problem.  You can do this by asking two simple questions.  First, “Is there a gap?”  Where are you now and where do you want to be?  The gap could be the problem.  Second, “Is there an obstacle?”  What obstacle prevents easy movement to close the gap?  The obstacle could be the problem.

Make sure your description of the problem is as accurate as possible.  Don’t include a suggestion of the solution in your problem definition.  Be nonjudgmental.  Avoid blaming anyone or any particular policy.  So, instead of looking for “who”—who did or didn’t or who is to blame—ask “why”—why did that happen or not happen, why did the person do or not do what they did.  Look for the system problem.