Finding the Critical Problem to Unlock Your Greatest Opportunity
Michael DeVenney
November 8, 2021

Finding the Real Problem,What Lies Beneath the Noise

Problems. We are surrounded by problems. They swirl around us, trip us up, and lead is to wrong turns. To get to our greatest achievement, though, we need to solve our toughest problem – the critical one that will be a catalyst to opening our way forward.

Yet, it seems we spend endless time wrestling with the problem, reach a solution, and then find ourselves back in the same place three or six months later. And we talk our way through it again.

Do we have enough information to understand the problem?

Information is not the issue. In fact, we are drowning in data and facts so much that a new term has been coined, infobesity. We have too much information that we can no longer digest it all.

And you have sat in those meetings with your team rolling the problem around. “If we just had more money, we could …”, or “If we had more time, that would …”, or maybe “If we put more effort there, everything should …”. We will never have enough time, money, or effort – that is not the problem.

My focus was always sales. If we faced a problem, the search for a resolution generally revolved around figuring out how to unblock our challenge with sales. And everyone in the room would agree that our sales process was the roadblock. We would debate and discuss how to improve our business development challenge and decide on the route to take, feeling a relief that we had handled the issue. And then next quarter, there was the problem. It was not sales. But we tried to figure out another way to resolve the sales debacle we knew was the roadblock. Why did no one just say, “hey, it is an operational problem, not sales, and here is why”.

Because we solve our problems with the same people, in the same way, often in the same room, and expect something different to happen. The same leads to the same. Opinions are taken to heart when they fit our own perspective.

But we are not alone. McKinsey reported that 85% of executive teams could not diagnose their most pressing problem. Oddly enough, defining the problem is the real problem.

We are human. We are complex – we say one thing and do another, we act one way here and another way there, we do things that work against our own interests. Even when we think we are applying reason and logic, we contradict ourselves.

Diagnosing what lies beneath our wicked situation is the toughest part of problem-solving. We get mired in the stuff around us – the breadth of obstacles, issues, and blockages that take our attention, none of which are the source of the challenge we face. Our attention is taken by what makes the most noise, distracting us from what lies beneath.

We get stuck, frustrated, and drained spending our energy addressing the wrong problem.

Every organization is experiencing a transformation – planned or not – as the world changes more rapidly and with greater complexity and ambiguity, standing still is not an option. And opportunity is held within unlocking the answer to “what should we do?” to the critical problem we face.

We need to become better at identifying the root cause of our discontent.

Three shifts will unlock the opportunity from the problem:

  1. Reframe the situation and see it in a different way
  2. Ask questions to go back to the start
  3. Bring in diverse perspectives familiar with the situation for real context

The answer to finding our problem lies in reframing. We always ask the same questions to get to the problem – and end up in the same place. It is time to break the cycle. Turning the problem around reveals the depth of the underlying issues and leads to the true root cause. What you are looking at is likely the end of the beginning, then start with working back. So, look at the situation in front of you and ask, “for this to happen, what would need to be true?”. Along the way gather perspectives from different people, especially those on the front line with intimate experience of the situation, to gain context and insight that you would not hear in the boardroom.

And throw out the “if we had more money, we would …” as that is a statement, and questions lead to the problem – statements are an ending. Instead of saying the problem is “marketing and sales are not integrated and aligned to work effectively together’, reframe it to look at “why are marketing and sales not aligned to work effectively together?” so you open up a discussion rather than forcing a yes or no answer to a statement. Ask the same questions as you move back to the start.

Use the famous “Five Whys” exercise, which goes something as follows; this is the situation, why is the situation happening? It is happening due to this. Okay, why is this happening? This is happening as that is not in place. Why is that not in place? And continue until you hit the true cause. If you include a variety of people involved in the situation, the discussion is deep and opens eyes to what is really going on beneath the noise. Then, it all comes together, and you hit the truth – the problem that is holding you back.

Reframing, using questions, including different perspectives, help us get to the truth. We define with clarity the problem we are facing and can put our energy and effort to resolving the critical blockage to moving forward.

In times of downturns and recoveries, we are at the risk of making our largest mistakes from overlooking the real problem, and then missing our greatest opportunity. Now, more than ever, is the time to escape sameness, and look to asking questions, bring in different points of view, to diagnose the problem and create a wicked solution.

+ More Articles