Why we can’t crack that problem!

Changing this
Einstein believed in the power of the questions. You must keep asking until you understand the problem.
Confusion comes from lack of clarity about the issue at hand. Formulate your problem as a question and clarify the objective, options, and constraints of your problem before plunging into data!

Are you working on a problem and feel confused? Lost? Unsure of how to proceed?

When working on a set of issues,  there is a lot you need to get right  to solve a problem –  from subject-matter expertise, to data research, to team communications, there is plenty that needs your attention.

And, yet, the most foundational piece of all, the actual Question we want answered, gets the least attention. No wonder so much work, research, or analysis effort get massively wasted.

We are all so eager to get on with finding solutions that we don’t spend enough time on the Question.


Most problems start out like this:

  • How can we apply this technology in our department?
  • Should I add to my distribution network in Asia?
  • What should I do about my career?
  • How can I learn to better motivate people?
  • Do we need to work on our internal processes?
  • How will I compete in this market against the local companies?

Unfortunately, these are all very bad questions! Why?

Compare the questions below:

Short questions are not good questions!

What should I do with my career?”

Can I get the necessary skills and the access to the decision-makers in one of the F100 companies in the entertainment industry, in the area of finance, to get a min salary of x, and be able to advance to y in the next 5 years, while maintaining a balanced life with my family, and not having to relocate outside the greater New York area?”

How can we apply this technology to our department?”

“Can we implement this technology and train our salespeople within the next 12 months to make a 5% difference in our sales in the following year, without exceeding an implementation budget of $100K?“.

The difference between the ‘wrong’ and the ‘solvable’ examples above is the specificity and precision of the problem statement. A good question needs to contain specific elements:

  1. A set of objectives, as precise as possible (quantitative, qualitative, or a mix)
  2. A set of options to be considered (others can be added in the process)
  3. A set of constraints that bound the problem.

A good, ‘solvable’ question needs a good amount of effort to be put together! Time very well spent. Here’s how to do it:

How to diagnose a ‘bad’ question.

1. Open-ended questions cannot be analyzed.

Some of the worst enemies of beginning problem-solvers are these small words everyone tells us to use: “How?”, “Why?”, “Who”, etc.

The problem is, there is nowhere to go with these questions. They are open-ended, and therefore, the whole universe is within the set of possibilities. Where to begin?

The answer is to move far, far, away from open-ended questions, and work on specific hypotheses that will get you thinking.

“How do I expand my product portfolio?” is a very bad question. It does not tell me why I am even considering my portfolio (the objective, e.g. to take advantage of the growing trend towards natural and organic foods); it does not tell me what are possible paths to expansion (the options, e.g. by leveraging the research we did last year, or by buying another company, or by producing complimentary products to our current line, etc); or what constraints I have (the constraints, e.g. I only have 12 months before the next shareholder report to get the results they are looking for).

Turn every open-ended question into a yes/no question with specifics.

P.S. The argument about open-ended question is a vibrant one. There is great utility of open-ended question, but not in the context of formulating a problem for analysis! Other areas (e.g. interviews, brainstorming, etc) are good applications, and we will get to those in other posts.

2. You cannot succeed without defining success.

Well, unless you want to count on pure luck! Otherwise, if you want to maximize your chances, you need to define what success – a great answer – would look like: What is the objective you want to accomplish? A certain revenue number? A 50% reduction in employee turnover? A 25% reduction in customer service costs? A long new product pipeline? (How long exactly)?

You can also miss the answer if you don’t know your constraints: Do you have an unlimited budget or a specific number? Do you have to operate within the current skill sets, or can you hire to execute your plan?

Success is complicated, but the are so many ways to fail! Prepare by laying out everything possible that can help you steer the ship to the right destination.

Putting together the key parts of the question.

1. Articulate the end goal with precision

It is not enough to say you are looking for higher revenues. It is $1m or $10 mil? That will make a huge difference in the solution you can put together. Are you looking to enter a new market to capture share, to preempt a competitor, or to be profitable in the immediate future? Clearly, the answer to your market entry will be very different, depending on what the goal is.

Spend a long time thinking clearly about what the specific, measurable objective is. Too many projects go wrong right at this step. Do not be afraid to push, and ask further and deeper questions to get you there.

See here for more details.

2. Brainstorm your options before you begin.

“How should I go about x”, or “What should I do” are classic examples of open-ended questions that cannot be analyzed. “How” and “What” and related questions are a sort of lazy way of phrasing a problem. You need to push your thinking to the next level:

What are some options you can start with?

  • “What should I do about the China market”, needs to be replaced with some particular options that are on the table, and exclude those that are not:
    • “Should I enter today with product x?”
    • “Should I partner with company Y that approached me last year?”
    • “Should I wait for now?”

And this, of course, assumes that you have answered the “what is the goal” part of the definition of your question. So, the options look like:

  • “Should I enter the China market today with product x in order to prepare for $5mil in sales in 2020”?
  • “Should I partner with company Y in order to prepare for $5mil in sales in 2020”?
  • “Should I wait for now, and still have the option to reach $5mil in sales by 2020”.

Some of the options to be evaluated are obvious. For the rest, I recommend initial brainstorming sessions between the teams. Make sure you include as many options as can be generated in the initial period, before you formalize your problem statement. This is the only way to really know the extent of the research you will need to do.

Postponing the options brainstorming – or omitting it – is almost guaranteed to produce scope-creep, budget, resources, and other headaches.

Spend time defining the problem before you start work!

3. Discover and articulate your criteria, conditions & constraints.

Objectives and options are necessary but not sufficient to completely specify the problem. The last element deals with all the specific criteria, as well as conditions and constraints that are present.

For example, is it enough to target a $5m revenue in China by 2020, through greenfield or acquisitions? Or do we need to also know how much we can spend on an acquisition; or whether we have the skills to execute the plan in China, i.e. local people, or locally knowledgeable people, contacts etc? Do we need to understand any dependencies, e.g. whether our current partner on a different, very important, product line might see this as a competitive move, or as an opportunity?

Gather up all the conditions you can imagine having an impact on the success of the outcome. Think about short-term and long-term; all the stakeholders; the financial, strategic, operational, organizational, or other aspects of the company function. And then spell them out as part of your problem statement question – no matter how long the question becomes (it is interesting how much concern the length of the question raises). Stick with substance and make it comprehensive.

See how this is applied to the questions above. And don’t worry about creating really long questions!

Your objective is not to come up with a short, elegant question, but rather, to formulate a comprehensive statement of the problem.

Practice this with a few of your own questions until you can tell the difference between a good question and a bad one.

Marina K
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.