Define that!! How to detect ambiguity and fix it.

Make sure you define with great precision every term you use in your questions, your arguments, or any of your evidence. (“what does ‘better’ mean exactly?“) Go deep into the question until all meaning is precisely extracted, otherwise every small deviation in the beginning will get magnified multi-fold later.

Key triggers of concern are words like ‘better’, ‘good’, ‘should’, ‘can’, etc. What does ‘better’ really mean in the context of this problem?

If you don't define your terms, everyone is free to understand them as they see fit!

When formulating a problem, pay attention to the precise meaning of the words you use.  Any ill-defined word can (will!) cause confusion, and inevitably, lead to a poor result: You are likely to miss the heart of the problem, and suggest an incomplete, peripheral, or tangential solution. The way to begin to comprehend the problem is go deeply into the meaning of the words. Ask questions to clarify, specify, and master the history, the intention, the context around each word.

Your problem statement must be crafted carefully and fully. Otherwise, any initial deviation from the meaning of the words, will be magnified multifold as you move to the solutions.

Suppose your boss calls you into her office and asks you any one of the following questions:

  • I need you to look into how we can improve our recruiting process
  • The VP wants to invest in this new company. Do you think it’s better than the one you research last month?
  • Our release is getting delayed, see what you can do.
  • Joe found a new supplier in China. Tell me if you think he is good.
  • We need more innovation in here. Can you look into it?

What do you do? (Go ahead, give it some thought. What would you do?)

Because you simply have no idea what the boss is expecting you do to exactly. And, likely, neither does she. See why:

What ambiguity looks like

What does ‘improve’ recruiting mean exactly?

  • We need to shorten the time from need-to-hire?
  • We need to hire better-qualified people?
  • We need to lower the average offer size?
  • We need to involve different people?
  • Something else?

What does ‘better investment’ mean exactly?

  • Is it a better ROI potential?
  • Is it more synergistic with our current business?
  • It requires less capital?
  • It can get approved faster?
  • The executives all seem to get along with our team?
  • Or something else?

What precisely does that more ‘innovation’ mean?

  • More new products in the pipeline?
  • More revenue from new products?
  • Applying completely new technologies to replace ours?
  • Changes in our internal processes?
It is impossible to reach certainty when you open with ambiguity.

That’s the idea. Make sure you define exactly what is meant by every word in your problem statement. Craft your question very carefully.

How ‘define that’ will help you succeed

1. Unearth all issues and angles to the problem

The discussion that starts with “Can we decide what we mean by ‘better fit'”? can be invaluable. It will likely help everyone understand, and agree on, what the determining criteria should be. It can also bring to light new issues, not previously considered: “Are we going to consider cultural fit?”, “How important is the breadth of product portfolio?” etc. It is much better to discuss and agree now, than to have the issue come up after all the field research has been completed and the information was not captured. This is where you need to fully understand the intent, the history, the full context of each key word. Be determined to ask the deeper questions to get the why, what, when, why, who.

2. Dramatically improve the chances of solving the right problem.

It is only when you precisely articulate every term of your problem statement that you know what information to look for in order to solve it. How can you research ways to improve innovation, when it is not clear what innovation we are talking about? (Internal process? New products? Cost-cutting? Everything?)

3. Insist on clarity about what precisely you will work on – and what you will not!

The beauty of this approach is that it spells out expectations up front. As a side-benefit, it also makes clear what will NOT be worked on. This is the way to avoid ‘boiling the ocean’, i.e. doing a lot of extra work that is not needed, just in case. That work , necessarily, comes at the expense of additional depth where it should be demanded.

Precision is precious.

Can you reformulate the above questions with precise definitions? It usually takes a few iterations, stay with the problem!

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