Do you know what problem you’re working on right now?

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 04-02-20

In this (somewhat dated) interview with Professor Nelson Repenning, he explores that question. Nelson was a first-year professor at MIT when I was there and was one of my favorites, teaching systems dynamics. He suggests “leaders who can formulate clear problem statements get more done with less effort and move more rapidly than their less-focused counterparts.”

I believe that we vastly underinvest in the task of generating a well thought out and articulated problem statement. There was a leader I worked for who ran a 10,000 person organization. Every one of those people knew that you didn’t walk into a meeting with that leader without bringing a problem statement to frame the discussion. It actually became a joke, as when someone would suggest it’s time for lunch, someone would respond “what problem are you trying to solve?” But despite the joke, this leader shaped behavior, and the work of improvement and change was purposeful and focused.

When I sit down with a team, I’ll often ask if they want to spend time discussing the problem statement. Usually, the answer is no, that everyone knows what the problem is and therefore that is a waste of time. Then I ask each person to articulate it, and no two people will articulate it the same way. Then we’ll spend the better part of an hour on just that task: defining the problem.

Nelson frames the resistance this way:

The short answer is they (problem statements) do not come naturally. If you’ve done a job for a long time and you are confronted with a problem, your automatic processor will almost immediately supply a potential solution. Whereas formulating a problem statement and thinking it through is a lot of work. So, your brain actively resists it and it takes a little discipline to make yourself do it.

I’ll talk a lot more about problem-solving this year. There is a lot for us all to learn. It’s far more than a skill. It’s a mindset. A behavior. A habit. A purpose. And, since we’ve all done problem-solving since before we could talk, we all tend to take for granted exactly how much we have to learn.