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Posted: October 11, 2012

Sure you want to fix that?

The problem with framing a problem

Todd Ordal

We can’t help ourselves: We're always looking for the answer before we have clearly defined the question.

Albert Einstein said that if he were given an hour to save the planet, he would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.

Problems (a deviation from expectations) are the result of changes. A good question to start framing the issue is, “What changed?” (Be sure to specify what, when, where and degree of change.) If you want to recover to your previous level of performance (e.g. financial performance, a smooth running car engine or your relationship with your spouse), you need to identify what changed and “fix” it to get back to status quo.

Typical problem solving looks like this:

Past performance           Problem                        Corrective action             Corrected

                                                                                                                                    


For example, if we identify marital bliss as past performance and an unhappy spouse as the problem, we might identify that the problem began when I started cooking only healthy meals. My corrective action (putting some fat and sugar back into the recipes) might return our relationship to marital bliss. Sometimes, however, many things change and it is worthwhile reframing the issue and innovating rather than problem solving.

I recently worked with a company to help them turnaround an underperforming division. In this situation, many things unfortunately changed—the management team, pricing, technology, competition, and the economy to name a few! What started out as a problem solving exercise, quickly turned into a need to innovate and revise the business model.

Innovation looks more like this:

Past performance                                Innovation                                        Improved

In the situation that I described, traditional problem solving was a waste of time. While the business had suffered declining performance like the upper diagram, this business needed revision. So many things had changed—most importantly the customer requirements—that it didn’t make sense to “fix” the business but rather recreate it—leveraging current core competencies, adding a new one and addressing the market in a different fashion. Perhaps it was good fortune that some of the internal changes that initially caused the problem caused senior management to rethink the business. The “problem” is now an “opportunity” to participate in a larger chunk of the marketplace.

Framing a problem as an opportunity might look like this:

I purposefully described a complex situation in a simple fashion, but often times that is what we should be doing.

The next time you are stuck with a problem, try to find 3-5 ways to frame the issue as an opportunity and perhaps you’ll end up in a blissful state rather than just “fixing” it.


 

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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