Talking about the Problem

Posted by bob on August 12, 2018

People get to be in leadership positions by many different routes.  Some are chosen by various groups in recognition of their skills or experience.  Some are chosen by more random circumstance, and some are chosen as a reaction to a previous leader.  “At least we did not make that previous mistake this time…”  Many elections and selections come down to the same things that drove us in high school.  We just like some folks and don’t like certain folks.

You can always identify the worst people for any job, because they spend all of their time telling you how they are going to fix things, not discussing the details or circumstances that explain the basis of their suggested improvement.  In short, they are talking about their solution, not the problem.  Whenever I hear this, I know that snake-oil, smoke, mirrors, and a healthy dose of magical thinking are sure to be involved.

I have seen this phenomenon in all walks of life. 

Of course, politics are rife with such buffoons, and it seems ever more common in our current environment.  When people are tired and frustrated with their lives, the false promises and outright lies of a demagogue are often ignored until those demagogues inevitably plant the seeds of their own failure.  But it can take far too long for such fools to exit the stage.

Businesses are not immune to this error.  Many times, company leadership deploys half-baked, poor solutions because they simply fell in love with something new.  They had long ago stopped talking about the problem, and had jumped to a specific conclusion and/or solution, even when the details of the problem would easily disprove their new infatuation.  The world’s best Enterprise Resource Planning system (ERP software) will never fix a broken company or defective business plan.

I hate to say it, but technical folks are also not immune to this same human weakness.  I cannot count how many times I have seen a problem-solving task contaminated by a strong personality who has seized upon a single answer. 

“It must be this component, stop looking for other answers, I am sure it is this component.”  Sorry to say, both you and I have been the person uttering such statements.  It is a common human weakness.  We desperately want a simple solution, so we stop analyzing the problem.

The next time a leader comes to you with a fixed solution in-hand, ask them to fill out a problem-solvers template, showing that they have asked and answered the basic 5 questions:

  1. What do you know about this problem?
  2. What are the rules?
  3. What don’t you know?
  4. How will you find out the stuff you don’t know?
  5. How will you know when you have solved the problem?

It’s a pretty good clue that they are spouting nonsense, when they tell you the answer to number 3 is that they already know everything they need to know.