What’s Your Problem?

By Heather Baldwin

The CEO has demanded a boost in sales so the company can post a profit for the year. In response you’ve gathered your sales team together to generate some ideas for how to go about it. It seemed a fairly obvious problem statement when it was handed down: The company wasn’t going to make its profit forecast; consequently, the sales department needs to double its efforts to close deals. But that’s the funny thing about problem solving: If you narrow the problem area too quickly, you might exclude the real problem.

In their book, How to Make Meetings Work (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 1982), Michael Doyle and David Straus point out that the definition of a problem sets boundaries around it. There is great danger, they say, in setting those boundaries too quickly because you might be excluding critical information. They liken the issue to a person’s inability to start his car. “If you can’t start the engine of your car and leap to the conclusion that you have engine trouble, you will exclude the possibility that the problem is an empty gas tank,” they say. Or, for example, say you’re responsible for assimilating hundreds of new students in a school district. If you define the problem as where to build a new school, you exclude discussions of converting existing warehouse space into classrooms or adding portable classrooms to existing schools.

In the case of your meeting to generate ideas for boosting sales to meet profit targets, reducing costs might be a far more realistic and achievable means of reaching the target. But if you define the problem as the need to increase sales, you’ll miss the cost-reduction angle.

It’s an important concept, say the authors, because the definition of a problem limits the range of potential solutions. “Try to avoid all unnecessary assumptions that can blind you to other causes and innovative solutions,” they say. “Experiment with a number of definitions and continually test your definition with the known facts that have been discovered through analysis.” That way, when you start brainstorming solutions, you’ll be getting the best, most targeted ideas for solving the problem.