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How to make sure you are solving the RIGHT problems

Albert Einstein famously said if he had an hour to solve a problem he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

While many people agree and appreciate that sometimes you need to slow down to speed up, when we get busy and feel like we know the right answer it’s tempting to opt for the “quick fix”. Treating symptoms may feel productive when we are taking action and quickly checking off items on our to-do list but if we don’t understand and solve the real root cause of a problem we’ll likely have the same situation occur over and over. A simple example of fixing symptoms rather than the root cause is a car that has a leaking radiator. You can solve it quickly by simply topping up the radiator fluid each day or you can go to a mechanic and have the leaking hose replaced.

Given the complexities of the problems that we are solving in the social sector, there is an even greater need for us to be careful that we are both working on the right problem and in the right way.

Here are some ways that you can be clearer on the problem you are solving

First is all about your mindset. To uncover, and to really understand the root cause of a problem, you need to just be willing to let go of the idea that you know everything or even that you know anything at all. So often, we go into a situation with the expert mindset, whereas what we really need is the learner's mindset. Being curious and resisting the urge to get defensive, so that you can simply listen, observe and learn everything that there is to know about the problem, and then also what sits underneath the problem is key to understanding the root cause of the problem is vs. just looking at the symptoms.

One easy way to check if you are working on assumptions is to make a list of everything that you know about the problem and then go through this list and markdown whether what you know is an assumption or if it is a fact. Once you have done this you can then consider how you will be able to confirm whether your assumptions are accurate or not.

The second opportunity that you have to really understand the cause of a problem is to speak to people with different perspectives. When you're looking at a situation, you're usually looking at it from a particular vantage point. If you can speak to some of your clients and to your employees who are dealing with the issue all the time you build up different perspectives and you can understand the things that are happening around your problem. Sometimes when you look at something in isolation, a solution makes a lot of sense, whereas when you look at it as part of a system, and as part of a moving piece that is surrounded by other moving pieces, then the way that it behaves and the way that it responds can be quite different. So getting those different perspectives from different people will help you to understand the problem within the context that it occurs.

Once you've used the learner's mindset and you've had a look at the different perspectives take a leaf out of Einstein’s book and, just take some time to think, to step away and think about, what, what it is that you've learned so far, and again, not think about how you can solve it, but just think about all the different pieces that all sit together and how it all interrelates and how it all works together.

Now that you have spent time learning to “love your problem” and understand

not just the issue that you are looking at, but how it forms part of a system and from a range of different perspectives, it’s time to look at how you can frame your problem in a way that leads to innovative solutions. At this point, we are looking to express the problem broadly enough that it does not lead to a specific solution and is narrow enough to guide our thinking and create some tension.

In design thinking we begin problem statements with the words ‘how might we’ as this encourages a problem-solving mindset.

Reframing your problem can feel a little awkward but gets easier with practice and as you get better at reframing your problem you will see the difference that this can make with the solutions you create.

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