The Problem

Problem solving is difficult. The good news is that problem solving is domain independent, so good problem solving skills can be applied to any problem. They can be applied to business process problems, to technical software problems, organizational problems, anything that presents itself as a system, for which a potential customer can ask you to solve a problem.

Perhaps the most difficult part is understanding enough about the problem to ensure that any potential solution will be effective. Your customer doesn't necessarily have a complete understanding of the symptoms. Your technical team doesn't necessarily have a complete understanding of the causes. Your customer relations group doesn't necessarily have a complete understanding of the impact. Yet those three aspects of the problem are required to assess potential solutions.

To get a complete enough understanding of the symptoms, you should be able to reproduce the symptom. If the symptom occurs inconsistently, or unpredictably, it is much harder to tell if you have addressed it. At the same time, an understanding of the symptom including the circumstances under which it can be reproduced, divorced from any speculation about the cause is an essential aspect of the problem definition.

With a good understanding of the symptom, you can document the impact of the problem. What does it mean to the individual customer, how frequently/likely does it happen? What does it prevent the customer from doing? How many customers is it likely to affect? Are there any opportunities to work around the problem to reduce/remove the impact. What is the potential for customer relationship impact? (are you going to lose customers?). Sometimes the identity of the customer alone is an impact. When your customer is a public figure, or an organizational leader – the reputational impact is greater.

If your impact is a risk (no real damage has been done yet), what is the time line on the realization of that risk? Is it end of day? End of billing cycle? How long is the fuse on this bomb? Does the customer have a business event that is impacted? When is that business event? (Do you routinely ask the customer those questions?)

When you have a complete enough understanding of the symptom, you can isolate causes of the symptom easy enough. For symptoms that appear inconsistent, it may be the case that several causal factors are required to align, rather than an individual cause. Isolating these individual causes is the challenge.

Understanding the causes, then exposes a more comprehensive impact statement. What other symptoms might result from the issues that are causing the currently known symptoms. What are other potential impacts from this problem, based on these new possible symptoms, and the understanding of the causes.

A solution that addresses the symptom without reducing or eliminating the impact merely "pushes the bubble." A solution that addresses symptoms without mitigation at the cause, increases the complexity of the system and long term maintenance or operating costs. A good solution eliminates the impact, not necessarily the symptoms, without increasing the complexity or sustainability of the system.

To solve a problem well, it is necessary to understand the symptoms, the causes and the impact in isolation from each other, as well as in relation to each other. A well documented problem statement has these three elements, clearly described, and also explains how they are related.

Truth is, most people and organizations waste a lot of time because they start to work on a solution before they have a good grasp on the problem. If you cannot explain the problem to others, you definitely should not be working on the solution. If you start to solve every problem by attempting to articulate the problem in this way, you will likely be regarded as a genius at problem solving. You will save your company time and money and quickly become a star performer.

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