The Two Rules Of Intelligent Problem-Solving

“‘What should we do about it?’ is only asked by those who have not understood the problem.” Thus spoke Alan Watts.  I’m not aware that Watts had any interest in management – he was a Zen buddhist and self-described “philosophical entertainer” – but in this case he put his finger on a very important organizational truth. If you have properly understood a problem, you already know what to do to solve it. That “what” may not be easy, may not even be possible, but it isn’t hard to see. And yet in my work with organizations I see a great deal more effort spent on solving badly understood problems than is spent on understanding them.

I was reminded of this during some recent work with a software company. They had a problem with development – projects running over time or over budget, or delivered not as the client wanted them. Except that this wasn’t a problem with development. It was a problem with sales and account management. Sales would close the deal by making unrealistic promises on functionality or delivery dates. Account management would do more of the same, and also pass on incorrect or incomplete descriptions of what the client wanted. The result – a failure of the development team.

So rule one of intelligent problem-solving is this. Distinguish between where the problem manifests itself and where it is created. These are rarely the same place. If sales makes unrealistic promises, you don’t see the results there, you see them in late delivery. Another example of this is the often heard complaint that “our costs are too high (because our profits are too low).” Very often what’s really the matter is that, however efficient you become, your product is just not worth what it costs to produce. That is a marketing, not a manufacturing, problem.

Rule two of intelligent problem-solving tells you how to find where the problem is actually created. There’s a very simple rule here, which will disclose the truth most of the time. Start from where the problem manifests itself then move closer to the customer and further up the organization.  Can’t make a product profitably? Don’t try to make it more cheaply, but persuade the customer to  pay more for it. Or if they won’t, come up with a new product that they will pay more for.  Failing team? Probably a case of failing management. Look one or more levels higher and you will probably see unrealistic expectations and objectives, lack of communication, lack of the provision of the right tools…

Some problems are hard. Give yourself a chance by attacking where they are created, not where they appear.

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