The First Problem in Problem-Solving

Having a meeting to solve a problem? You better make sure you ask these two questions first.

038 3. Perspectives

For almost 10 years, I’ve been adjunct faculty at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, where I teach a business integration capstone course. In that course we use the Harvard Case Teaching model, a cornerstone principle of which is the idea that “not knowing the real problem is problem-solving’s first problem.”

To explain, let’s look at a scenario.

A transportation company’s project manager launches into his briefing in front of three top executives. This is a big opportunity for him. He is enthusiastic about his analysis and ideas and begins outlining his two most exciting ones.

When he finishes, the company president says, “That’s nice, but your ideas don’t address what I consider our primary challenge.” The manager is dumbstruck, but he has made a fateful and all too common workplace mistake. He didn’t clarify the exact problem that his planning assignment was meant to address.

Have you ever had an argument with a friend that goes on and on until you finally realize you aren’t even arguing about the same thing? Same issue.

Every semester, I explain the premise to my business students this way: The first obstacle in most problem-solving and decision-making is disagreement or misunderstanding on what the real issue actually is, which means the first step toward finding the right solution is making sure everyone agrees on the problem.

What is the business of business if not solving challenges and chasing opportunities? Yet the default assumption that everyone understands or agrees about an issue the same way only deepens and prolongs the problem itself. And when two (much less 20) people interpret a problem in a different way, chances are their ability to scrutinize the right solution becomes slimmer and slimmer. The result? Conflict, discord, inefficiency, wasted meeting time and a horizon of sunk costs.

The eminent Harvard Case Teaching critical-thinking model focuses on three simple questions in any decision-making process: What is the problem? Why is one solution among all available the best one right now?, and How will it be executed to solve the problem?

What, why, how? Of these three basic questions, the first one is often the most overlooked by everyone from savvy college business students to experienced executives and managers.

Why? Think about the transportation company manager: First, he judged improperly that his assessment of the issue to be solved was generally shared and understood by everyone else. His assumption was wrong.

Second, he put all of his planning energy and focus in that space where we all know reputations and esteem are built—with perfect new solutions and the coolest original ideas and innovations. But it was all misguided.

How can you help overcome your company’s predilection for making this mistake? The next time you sit down for a company meeting with your colleagues, ask everyone these two fundamental questions before it begins:

  • Does everyone here have the same clarity about the main problem we are here to solve?
  • Does everyone have the same understanding of this meeting’s main purpose?

Take a few minutes to discover first, just how disconnected the team’s thinking on this most basic point may be. Unless there’s clear consensus, the meeting agenda must pivot to reach common agreement about the problem before you should expect to analyze truly viable solutions.

Thankfully, this scenario has a happy ending.

That transportation manager went back for a second presentation a week later, having learned something valuable. He started his presentation by saying, “You asked me to come here today to focus on possible solutions…but first, do we agree that our main challenge in the next six months is…?” With that beginning, this time he nailed it.



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King Logan advises business clients in strategic planning, brand development and corporate communications. He is also adjunct faculty teaching Business Strategy Integration at Tulane’s AB Freeman School of Business. He may be reached at (504) 296-5111