When Apollo 13 astronauts reported an explosion on their space module, NASA’s Houston Mission Control contemplated on continuing the mission and land on the moon. It was only when NASA realized that the problems were life-threatening that it was decided to abort the mission and to have the astronauts return to Earth safely.
We tend to define problems by its symptoms and how it affects our agenda. NASA had an agenda to get Apollo 13 to the moon and at first stuck to that mission even with the reports of an explosion and the resulting problems.
We apply this thinking in our daily lives.
If we get sick, the first thing we look for is medicine to relieve pain and discomfort.
If our car won’t start in the morning, we look under the hood to see if there is a quick fix. If we can’t find any, we hail a taxi or find a ride via Uber or Grab so we won’t be late to wherever we’re going. Car repair comes later when we have time or we delegate it to someone else to do the fixing.
We try to solve problems with remedies and quick fixes that as much as possible won’t interfere with our agenda. We almost all to often react to problems as obstacles that are to be removed or bypassed via the easiest means possible.
Hence, when it comes to problems, we all too often seek solutions as soon as possible.
We classify problems as either big or small. A small problem has an obvious and easy solution. A big problem needs figuring out, planning, and allocation of resources.
But sometimes a problem, whether big or small, is part of a bigger problem that may not be apparent.
A bigger problem may be a root cause for the smaller problems or a flaw in a system that has yet to be detected. It can also be an opportunity which is manifesting itself in a changing environment.
For example, a small online retail business that is experiencing steadily growing sales has hired more people to meet the growing demand. The head count has grown to a point where preparing the payroll has become more time-consuming and complicated. The business owners, in response, install a customized payroll system and train clerks to run it. After a while, the business owners notice the overhead costs are going up so they engage an accountant to streamline the budgeting and charging of expenses. Profits do grow but the accountant’s reports show rapid increases in the costs of rent, insurance, and electricity. The business owners hire a consultant who recommends renegotiating the contracts for rent, finding another insurance provider, and buying a more efficient air-conditioning system that uses less electricity.
Finally, the business owners realize that their business is just getting too big to manage on their own so they form a partnership with an investor who infuses capital and hires professional executives. The online business becomes a bigger company that grows tenfold in succeeding years
The online retail business company addressed problems as they came but wasn’t aware of the bigger problem until it became apparent. The business was just getting too big to manage.
Solving the bigger problem begins with a fuzzy situation. The online retail business is getting too big. That’s a fuzzy situation. It spurs questions. Why is it getting too big? What makes us say it is getting too big? How did it become too big?
Answering the questions from the fuzzy situation provides information about the problem behind the fuzzy situation. The information becomes the springboard to clarify what the problem is all about. The online retail business is getting too big from the higher sales. The organization has grown in head count. Costs to accommodate the higher head count such as rent, insurance, and electricity have gone up. The business has hired more people to manage the head count.
From the information gathered, the business can then begin to define the problem. Defining the problem does not necessarily mean identifying a cause or an issue. One should avoid the pitfall of jumping to a conclusion such as, in the online business example, saying that the the business has become unproductive because of the higher head count.
Defining the problem requires asking in-depth questions. How can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales? How might we become more productive? In what ways can we reduce costs?
The online retail business selected the first question: how can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales. The owners chose this question as the one that defined the problem based on criteria. That criteria come from the business owners’ mission, goals, and strategy. The online business wanted to be a fast-growing company with high market share and revenue within five (5) years. Hence, the owners chose the question “how can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales” as their problem.
It doesn’t stop there. The problem may be defined more sharply over more information and thought. The problem may become “how might we increase sales without incurring higher costs?” Or “how might we expand our product lines without having to hire more people?”
It is when the owners settle on a specific question that they would have defined their problem.
*originally published on February 8, 2019 on LinkedIn