Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition


Today we have joining us a guest blogger, Wayne Fisher, Ph.D. He will be blogging here periodically along with other XLC colleagues who are experts at leadership and innovation. Wayne is a lead innovation facilitator for Xavier Leadership Center’s Innovation Certificate programs. He is a  full-time creativity consultant and innovation facilitator formerly with P&G. Wayne has created a series of popular innovation workshops focused on new product development, training thousands of managers across P&G’s diverse business units and regions. These workshops and related tools provide a common language and framework for innovation, fostering collaboration across the globe, and at P&G’s Innovation Design studio, the GYM. Wayne received his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, and has been granted 14 U.S. patents.  His process expertise includes new product/process design, CPS, Technical Problem Solving (TRIZ) Design Thinking and Team Facilitation.

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition

by Wayne Fisher, Ph.D.

John Dewey famously quipped that, “A problem well defined is half solved.”  And yet, as a Creative Problem Solving trainer and facilitator, I have watched hundreds of individuals and teams struggle with this crucial phase of problem solving.

My work in recent years has uncovered three key barriers to effective problem definition:

  • over simplification of the problem statement
  • lack of penetration into root causes of problems
  • strong cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition

There are many Creative Problem Solving models in use today, but they all follow two basic principles:

1.  Define the problem, then solve it.

2.  Diverge, then converge, at each step.

I use Min Basadur’s Simplex™ method in many of my CPS workshops.  It’s a simple, robust process that works well for most business challenges.  I have also developed a toolbox that covers each step in the process – in particular the crucial first three steps of Opportunity Finding, Fact Finding, and Problem Definition.

In CPS, the primary objective of Problem Definition is to provide the stimulus for Ideation.  Superficial problem statements (“how to grow sales 20 percent”) don’t stimulate new ways of thinking about old problems.  Truly effective Problem Definition can’t be boiled down to a single sentence.  Instead, it is a complex mapping of multiple points of view and multiple levels of abstraction.  Min’s “Why – What’s Stopping” analysis1 is one effective technique for generating many divergent problem statements.  In a typical 2-day workshop, we will write 100-200 problem statements before converging on the top 5 or so for ideation.

I once ran an “experiment” with 140 senior R&D scientists and engineers from a broad range of businesses.  Working in groups of 7, one volunteer at each table agreed to be a Seeker (asking for help on a specific problem they were working on).  The other six participants agreed to be Helpers (peer resources to help define the problem).  The teams had 20 minutes to complete a root cause analysis of the problem and 10 minutes to come up with as many alternative problem statements – not solutions – as possible.

The feedback from exercise was the overwhelmingly positive. “I’ve gained more new insights into my problem in the last 30 minutes than in the previous 6 months” was a typical response.  How was it possible for six random peers, from various businesses and functions, to be such effective Helpers?

Art Markman describes one potential explanation – the Illusion of Explanatory Depth.2  Simply stated, we don’t understand our world as well as we think we do.  The more familiar the object (e.g., a SharpieTM) or the situation (e.g., our customer’s needs), the larger the gap between what we think we know and what we actually know.  The peer group, using a basic root cause analysis, helped the Seeker see an old problem with new eyes and uncover their own knowledge gaps and potential new solution approaches.

Min’s research shows that each stage of CPS tends to favor a particular thinking style.3  Effective Problem Definition favors a deliberate, thoughtful, divergent, exploratory thinking style.  Successful project leaders, on the other hand, tend to have convergent, action-oriented styles – exactly the opposite of what’s needed for effective Problem Definition!   These leaders are unlikely to have the discipline to take their team through the entire CPS process without active facilitation.

I have used Min’s profile tool to identify many teams’ potential strengths and challenges for creative problem solving.  Very often, a team’s profile will suggest a gap in the first three steps of Simplex™.  In this case, the need for active facilitation and deliberate use of tools is acute.  It is best practice is for someone outside the team to facilitate (to allow the leader to act as a full participant in the process and not bias the process).  Failing that, participants can take turns as “process owner” for those steps they are comfortable leading.

Net, my three recommendations for overcoming the three barriers to effective problem definition:

  • deliberate use of tools like “Why – What’s Stopping” to generate as many granular problem statements as possible vs. seeking the one “right” problem to solve
  • deliberate use of tools like Root Cause analysis to be explicit about what we think we know and to identify gaps in knowledge
  • active facilitation by someone outside the team who is comfortable leading the first three steps of the Simplex™ process

1Min Basadur, The Power of Innovation, pp. 84-89.

2http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/05/discover_what_you_need_to_know.html

3Min Basadur, The Power of Innovation, pp. 33-40, see also http://www.basadurprofile.com

© 2012 Wayne Fisher, Innovation Guide

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