What’s the real problem?

October 12, 2012

How often we try to solve a problem in the terms first presented to us.  Occasionally this works.  But very often the statement of the problem is self-limiting, and tends to steer us away from finding a real solution.  Or — and this is just as problematic — we may re–phrase a problem in limiting and perhaps misleading terms.

Not long ago I changed the e-mail address at which I receive notices from what had been a very active mailing list.  Instantly, I noticed that incoming mail from that list had stopped.  What was going on?  Was there a spam filter?  I realized that I’d changed the list settings before creating my new email account.  Had the list sent mail to the momentarily non-existent email address, and then turned me off?  What other scenarios could lead to such an email blockage.  I worked diligently on this problem, sought the assistance of the list owner and of several list participants, but got nowhere.  A whole weekend went by, but no solution appeared.

And then the email I wanted started to flow.  It turned out that this once-active list had experienced a significant decline in traffic, and there had been absolutely no messages during the whole weekend.  Come Monday there was a trickle of emails on the list — and they all came through to me just as they were supposed to.

In fact I had originally seen the problem as, “No emails coming through”.  But then I had quickly rephrased it into a question that I thought would be more helpful — “What is blocking my emails?”  And holding on to that paradigm had blinded me to the very simple solution — “There were no emails for anybody”.

Recently a colleague shared with me her concerns about the board of the small nonprofit that she directs.  We immediately began talking about various training programs or board retreats that might make the board a more functional support for this nonprofit and for its director.  It felt appropriate for us to talk about the possible agenda for such training, whether it should be for all board members or just those on the executive committee, etc.  Our unspoken paradigm was that the board didn’t understand its best role, and so wasn’t behaving in the most productive manner.  Bring about the required understanding or attitude and the problem would be fixed, we believed.

It took quite a while for us to step back and reformulate the problem, into the simple statement, that “The board is not serving the role needed by the organization and its director”.  And with this understanding we could ask whether, in fact, the right people were serving on the board, whether the personal benefits they sought from board service were consistent with the organization’s situation, and whether there were any positive models of board service within the board’s recent history.  Board training (in the conventional sense) remained one possible option, but not the only option.

Another organization that I’ve worked with found that they weren’t taken seriously when seeking large contributions.  They struggled to produce clearer descriptions of their programs, that they were sure would excite potential major donors.  The new materials were better, and did attract more small donations.  But they didn’t solve the problem — major donors were still holding back.  It turned out that the public financial statements were unclear and inadequate. This didn’t bother small contributors, but were a real concern to major donors.  A new treasurer was able to produce much clearer financial reports, and larger contributions began to flow.

In each of these cases the relevant people heard a statement of the visible problem, but made assumptions as they translated it into a limiting reformulation.  Letting go of those assumptions and asking anew what was the real problem turned out to be the key.

The moral here is simple:  Our first question should always be, “What is the problem?”.  And we need to answer that in the most primitive way, trying to state the problem as seen or experienced, rather than as transformed by some suggestive but often inaccurate assumptions or deductions.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: