How do you even know if you’re solving the right problems at work?

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The first thing I’m going to say here is a generalization, but I believe all generalizations have to come from some kernel of truth, no? I think we live in a society, business-wise, that’s very focused on answers and solutions — as opposed to questions and problems. This is likely the result of the main way businesses are evaluated financially, which is to say quarterly, which demands quick results. Quick results = greater focus on answers and solutions, because that’s what you need now, baby! The other element is how we hire. We value people with those documented skills. We don’t necessarily look for “the problem anticipators,” although potentially we should.

I’ve written a lot about the power of questions — and specifically good questions — especially at work. To wit:

Turns out, I might be onto something.

Here’s an interesting article on ‘brainstorming questions as opposed to solutions.’ Note this part about Instagram and how it came to be:

At the start of Instagram, he and his co-founders sat down and wrote ALL the problems with mobile photo apps at the time. The big problems that rose to the top with mobile photography were lackluster photos, lengthy upload times, and share ability. With this focus, they designed an app that forever changed the course of photography.

If you’re a more visual person, here’s another way to approach that:

Finding the problem is the hard part.

That’s a big shift in semantics there — because most people assume finding the solution is always the hard part. That’s how you’re trained to think, and that’s how most school assignments are set up (at basically all levels).

Why does it matter if the problem or the solution is the part you’re solving?

It matters a lot.

Most businesses, because of various unclear reporting structures and deliverables, are set up around:

  • Being productive
  • Focusing on tasks/projects/deliverables
  • Doing that through meetings and e-mails
  • Hitting your targets and moving on

That’s what bosses want to see and that’s what keeps the trains running and the paychecks printing and the bonuses flowing.

Problem is: that set-up is almost consistently plagued by bad communication from above and overall devoid of context. So by the time you reach the middle rungs of an organization, very few people understand how their work ties back to the company’s work.

But because we’re a very task-focused business culture, we still need to perform.

So we’re off doing tasks and projects with bad context and bad communication.

You know what that means?

We’re likely working on the wrong problem, so whatever solution — deliverable! — we come to may not even help our company.

Consider this, from the same article above:

Imagine you were approached by a banking client who wants to increase user satisfaction and engagement with a spiffy new mobile app. Do we dive straight into wireframes? Oftentimes, problem-finding reveals a more complex issue to focus our energies on. For example, are the ATMs the main touch point for this bank’s customer and are performing at a high level? Does customer service lack overall? Does the bank have an integrated physical-digital strategy?

I’ll be 100 percent honest. At every single place I’ve ever worked, a team confronted with that problem would dive right into wireframes. But then … what are they solving for? Is it even the right problem or question?

Would you generally respect someone who’s spent 40 years studying creative problem-solving and solutions?

Probably, right? Well, meet Jacob W. Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who’ve done just that. Their basic finding: if you want to excel at the top of a field, it’s all about knowing what problem you’re working on and trying to solve.

There’s a way to approach all this if you’re more accustomed to diving right into action items. It’s called the Question Formulation Technique. Here’s how it works:

  1. Appoint a session leader.
  2. The session leader sets an area of focus for questioning (e.g. “The future of mobile photography”)
  3. Team spends 10 minutes producing as many questions as we possible (Questions can start with “What is blocking…”, “What is stopping..” or “Why…”)
  4. Team spends another 10 minutes pairing up to share and improve their questions.
  5. Pairs then spend the final five minutes to prioritize their questions and present to the team.
  6. Team decides on three favorites to explore.

Most teams can apparently reach about 50 questions and pare those down to 3. Obviously you need a good session leader — if you have someone who is all over the place, well, good luck going from 50 questions to 3 questions. And obviously you need to work at a place where the general mission or purpose of new initiatives is somewhat defined by senior management. Without those two aspects, you might be chasing your tail a little bit.

Since most companies are based around the idea of generating revenue or growth, I’d mostly approach it like this:

  • How does this tie into how we make money?
  • How could this provide us new channels or opportunities?
  • What are the ideas/concepts/features this needs to have?
  • What are the pain points we’re hearing or seeing about other examples of this?
  • What’s the absolute most crazy thing we could do hear that would blow people’s minds if it actually worked?

It comes down to this, basically: if you’re not focused on solutions and answers, you have some freedom to be creative and explore — because at the questions and problems phase, no one is expecting perfection yet. It’s much more freeing than just diving into some no-context work that demands a target/deliverable/task solution by X-Date.

What do you think? Is it worthwhile or even possible to focus on questions and problems first, and in a deep way, in business settings?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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