by Dan Carlton, founding partner – The Paragraph Project
The four-step process for better problem solving
If you strip any project down to its essence, you’ll find there are two fundamental tasks. The first is defining the problem that you're trying to solve, and the second is actually setting out to solve it.
It sounds pretty intuitive, but I think that first step usually receives short shrift. In my experience, people are so geared up to get in there, roll up their sleeves, and come up with ideas, that they forget to really set the stage and understand why a client even needs their help in the first place. What is their marketplace situation like? How is their business performing? What are they setting out to achieve, and what’s getting in their way?
Asking yourself “What solution should I recommend?” is the worst first step. Before you can answer that question, you need to do four things.
1. DEFINING THE PROBLEM
All effective problem solving starts with effective problem defining. Too often, people jump right to solving without knowing exactly what they are solving. The big challenge here is figuring out how to separate the symptom from the disease. Many of us address the symptom only to find the solution to be a temporary fix.
A great way to uncover the root cause of any problem is to go through the "Five Whys" exercise. "Five Whys" is a technique that was developed by Toyota to identify manufacturing issues and solve them in the most effective and efficient way possible. The way you start is to articulate the problem you’re facing. In terms of corporate strategy, that’s typically a surface level issue like losing market share or declining sales. With the "Five Whys" technique, the goal is to ask “why" five times to help you dig deeper and deeper to uncover the root cause of the problem.
For instance, say you’re working with a local, downtown restaurant that has seen revenue decline. Ask yourself, “Why is revenue declining?” The answer might be that the average ticket is lower than it used to be. Why is that? Maybe because fewer tickets include an alcoholic beverage? Ask yourself why that is. Maybe it’s because traffic on Friday and Saturday nights is down, which is bringing overall alcohol sales down. Why is traffic down on Fridays and Saturdays? Perhaps it’s because the performing arts center around the corner recently closed down.
By going through the "Five Whys" exercise, you’re able to better define the problem. Rather than a food problem or a bar problem, what you might really need to fix is the entertainment problem.
2. REFRAMING THE PROBLEM
The next step is to create a few different reframes of the problem. Each reframe of the problem statement could lead to a number of potential solutions. The way we do this is by creating “How might we…” statements.
Going back to the restaurant example, a few reframes of the problem statement might be:
How might we get more people to add alcohol to weekday tickets (to counterbalance the dip in weekend sales)?
How might we get more people to spend a Saturday night downtown?
How might we get more happy hour visits from downtown professionals before they leave downtown for the weekend?
Sharp and varied reframe statements can help unlock some new, surprising solutions.
3. COMING UP WITH SOLUTIONS
These reframed problem statements are great fodder for a brainstorming process. Actually, in many situations we prefer brainwriting as opposed to brainstorming. Brainwriting is where a group of individuals is tasked with a problem to solve and each individual is required to think and ideate on their own.
You can do these brainwriting sessions in person with a group of people, or do them remotely and over the course of a few days. Simply asking team members to come up with three ideas for each “How might we…” statement can give you dozens of potential solutions to consider.
Remember, when it comes to new ideas, quantity is quality. The more ideas you generate, the more likely you are to have a few gems in the bunch.
4. EVALUATING OPTIONS
You can't solve every problem or implement every solution. Resources and time are limited. To narrow in on the best opportunities, evaluate and score each potential solution for 1.) ease of implementation and 2.) its potential size of impact if implemented. This scoring can be done as a group or be the responsibility of a few key decision makers.
Sometimes it’s helpful to even map these out on a two-by-two matrix, with the ideas that are easiest and most impactful populating the top right quadrant.
Getting Bruno Mars to play a few sets at our restaurant every other Saturday might be impactful, but not all that easy to pull off. And a standing karaoke night might be easy to implement but perhaps not all that impactful. The goal is to identify the ideas that check both boxes, and then assign the appropriate resources to them.
Keep in mind, there isn’t a framework or methodology in the world that will get you the results you’re looking for if you’re solving for the wrong problem. Spend as much time (if not more) diagnosing the problem as solving it, and you’re well on your way to generating truly valuable solutions for your clients.
To learn more about problem solving watch this Human Intelligence segment with Dan Carlton and Dave Alsobrooks.