What's your problem?

Problems are OpportunitiesDefine your problem before trying to fix it!

At today's Boston KM Forum Knowledge Cafe: Applying Knowledge to Organizational Challenges, there were a number of topics discussed from electronic records to innovation to project management and their connections to knowledge management.  One item that really pricked my ears was the Knowledge - Innovation discussion with Barbara Kivowitz.

Barbara Kivowitz presented her model for creativity and innovation and problem solving that really resonated with me.  First, she suggested that the ideas of "creativity" and "innovation" are opposites:

Creativity: Generating as many ideas as possible in response to a question.  Going beyond to find something new.  It is divergent.
Innovation: Coming up and synthesizing ideas to get resolve a problem.  It is convergent.

And her model uses this dichotomy to go from the mess of an initial problem to a solution to be implemented.  The initial problem often isn't the real problem or the real thing to be addressed.  So you must clarify the problem and really define what it is you are trying to do.  I made a quick connection to building a Current Reality Tree.  Once you understand the problem you are trying to solve, then generate ideas.  Then develop those ideas under the requirements of your business (money, people, etc).  In this stage I thought of building transition trees and implementation plans that account for negative ramifications.  And only then do you look at implementing the idea.

A lot of what I heard in this discussion What I really liked here was the idea of defining your terms that she described as "clarify."  Everyone comes into situations with assumptions about what can and can't be done.  About what is the scope.  About what we think the problem is.  What is your real problem?  It often is not the problem that it seems on the surface: those are symptoms of the deeper issues.  And maybe those symptoms are all connected to a central issue, rather than separate elements that need to be solved individually.

[Photo: "Problems are Opportunities" by Donna Grayson]

2 Comment(s)

Defining the problem is one of the most under-appreciated skills in organizations today. Problem statements define our trajectory, the path that we follow. If we're just 5 degrees off on our trajectory, we will end up in a very different place when we're done.

The most common mistakes we make is building the solution or the cause into our problem statements. This limits our possibilities. For example, if our problem statement is "not enough copy machines" then there is only one solution to that - buy more. Not having something is never the problem statement. The problem is the condition that we're trying to change, the outcome whose gap we want to close.

In my coaching, I will often spend 50 minutes just getting the problem statement. And it's always a good investment of time.

Jamie Flinchbaugh

Thanks for stopping by, Jamie. The problem statement is an interesting one. I've learned the same thing - the lack of something isn't the problem. What is the "not enough copiers" problem? Can't get materials published quickly enough? Why do you need that?

One of the other tricks I've learned is to make sure the problem statement stays within the domain of your control - that there isn't blame. If your problem is something you can't control, then there is no hope to resolving the problem. (XYZ always deliver their materials late.) On the other hand, if you cast it as something you CAN control, there is a lot more power. (We often have to expedite due to late / missing materials.)

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