What is Your Problem?

Of the many lessons we can learn from Moneyball, my favorite is the way that Billy Beane tries to get the managers to see their problem.

The scene played above is not uncommon when starting out on any kind of improvement…The classic “problem statement is a solution” routine is something I’ve seen over and over again. “What is the problem?” “We need to build a system that can track, yada, yada, yada…” “Nope. Not the problem.” That’s a potential solution to a problem we have not yet identified yet.

In my experience, leaders humans are so eager to get to the solution that they let all their biases, and routine problem solving techniques take over. For tough business problems we need to tap into a different part of our brain than the one we use to solve our “where should I eat for lunch” problem. Just ask Matthew May. He calls this out in his new book Winning the Brain Game.

Some of the greatest minds in history have repeatedly said that correctly defining the problem is as important (or more important) than the solution. Kettering, Einstein, Mann, Pink.

A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.

— Charles Kettering

If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.

— Albert Einstein

Defining a problem clearly and completely represents 90 percent of the difficulty in innovation.

–Darrell Mann

Dan Pink explains in To Sell is Human that problem finding is ultimately better than problem solving.

A shift from the skill of problem solving to the skill of problem finding– that’s really what innovators do. They find problems that other people didn’t realize were problems.

Pink didn’t come to this conclusion on his own either…He cites plenty of research and experiments dating back to the 60’s that suggest this simple principle is true. Turning the conventional wisdom of “bring me solutions not problems” upside down!

When we get caught up in getting to solutions quickly, cutting corners around the important initial yet usually bypassed problem identification phase, we don’t get to the solutions that last.

John Wooden said it best…”if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” Take an extra day, or an extra week (take as much time as necessary) to clearly identify that problem and break it down before setting off to fix it.