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How Not to Solve Problems

Spinning Wheels

Have you ever been a part of a meeting like this one that I was asked to observe?

A group of diverse, talented, and smart individuals met to generate ideas for a product innovation. They were working on a big, complex set of issues with great potential impact. Each participant was passionate and engaged in the topic. The discussions were energetic and positive.

For a while.

After about an hour, the faces of the participants had changed. They looked tired. A tone of agitation had crept into some voices. Folded arms communicated through body language that minds were closing.

Although my role was to be an outside observer, I decided to ask a question. “What is the problem that you are trying to solve?”

After a pause, one of the participants gave it a shot, but the blank looks on other faces indicated that it wasn’t quite the problem that the others were working on.

I asked a follow-up. “Who is it that you are trying to solve a problem for?”

At that point, I was pulled aside by the leader who had arranged for this creative session. “That’s a step we have planned for later. Right now, we are just coming up with ideas, figuring out what we can do.”

That made the problem perfectly clear for me.

No, not the problem that they were trying to solve. But I had seen clearly why they were spending loads of intellectual energy and getting nowhere.

It doesn’t matter how creative, talented, smart, and collaborative a group you have – if you don’t define the problem, you can’t create a solution. Lewis Carrol perfectly illustrated the problem 150 years ago in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

That cracks me up every time I read it. It’s not that it is so absurd. It’s that it is so real. I’ve had that kind of conversation too many times. Surely, we’ll come up with a good idea, if we only talk long enough.

Like Alice, though, we aren’t going to get where we want to go just by randomly going. To come up with great innovations, we have to start with the problems we are trying to solve, and the people for whom we are trying to solve them.

Defining a Problem is Hard

So we have to start with an understanding of the problems we are trying to solve, and the people for whom we are trying to solve them. If we are going to come up with valuable solutions, this point seems rather obvious. Yet so many organizations fail to do this.

How does such an obvious mistake happen so often? The problem (no pun intended…well, okay, maybe it’s a little intended) is that defining problems is hard work. We tend to think solving them is the hard part, but how much harder is it to define the problem? Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution[1] – so apparently he found it to be an 11-to-1 more difficult challenge.

Defining problems is an art, requiring insight and judgment, trial and error. It is difficult work, but it is one of the constraints that are necessary for freeing creative thinking,

There are many approaches that people recommend for doing it. There is no single right way. Here are some tips, though, to get you started in the right direction.

  • Define the people for whom you are solving the problem. Some prefer to think of this as “who has an unmet desire or need?” Understand those people. Consider also those who may be indirectly impacted by the problem.

  • Research the problem space. Gain a general understanding and share it with the team. Focus on understanding the causes of issues for the customer. What are their pain points? What contributes to the pain? How are they currently solving their problems? Why are those solutions insufficient?

  • Explain why the problem is important to solve. As Simon Sinek has eloquently communicated,[2] to inspire action, you must start with "why." Don’t assume that the “why” is obvious. Everyone on the team should have a clear and common understanding. Be explicit about it.

  • Play around with the scope of the problem. The problem needs to be defined broadly enough to be worth solving, and narrowly enough to be solvable. Everlasting global peace among all people is probably too big, and deciding where to walk my dog is probably too small. Go for something in between.

  • Phrase the problem in multiple ways. Restating the problem in multiple ways can provide interesting insights, and ensures that the team members’ varying perspectives and assumptions are all explicitly communicated.

Only after defining the problem – clearly, succinctly, and explicitly – should you begin looking for a solution.

But you don’t just start by one day sitting in your favorite contemplation spot and saying to yourself, “I’m going to define a problem today.” You start by looking where the problems exist – and that is where your customer lives.


[1]One of many quotes attributed to Einstein that is probably just apocryphal. Curse you, internet memes! Still, it illustrates the point.

[2] If you are one of the few people with internet access that has not seen this TED Talk, you can find it at

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