Management – Defining the Problem

Whenever I need a quote for an article or a speech, I start by checking Albert Einstein. My other favorite-but for totally different reasons-is Yogi Berra. Einstein is quoted as saying that if he had only one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution.

Oftentimes, we think we know what the problem is: We don’t have enough money or resources; we don’t have the time. But in point of fact, those aren’t the problems-they are the result of the problems.

How to get to the heart of the matter?

There is much written in both management and scientific circles about defining problems. They range from the practical (Rephrase the problem) to the whimsical (“Problem-solve your problem statement”). Most, however, warn against avoiding solutions until the problem has been defined.

Iris Lloyd who was (and may still be) a management analyst in the Management and Organizational Division of the National Bureau of Standards, suggested in a 1978 article in the Public Administration Review, that perhaps defining the problem was actually the wrong way to approach complex management problems.

She suggests that oftentimes “working on them incrementally as open-ended problems” can solve problems more effectively. These solutions, she says may not be elegant, but they are “realistic responses to real life situations.”

Lloyd agrees with most of today’s management gurus (and me) that too often we mistake the symptom for the problem. But for her, a larger issue is that too often we are too quick to set boundaries around what we think the problem may be. This, she says, limits us and does allow us to see the problem as part of a larger situation and to consider total effects. Or, as my husband always reminds me, “Beware of unintended consequences” that happen largely because of failure to consider the bigger picture.

Define the problem? Go with the flow? I think I’ll let Yogi have the last word. “If you ask me anything I don’t know, I’m not going to answer.”

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