How You Define a Problem Determines if You Can Solve It

How we define things is incredibly important. I’ve been reminded of this almost constantly this week. Here are some examples:

  • I was talking with a friend of mine over the weekend about using social media to improve the flow of ideas within an organisation. She is a high-ranking manager in a very large organisation, and she was curious to hear about this blog, and about how John and I have used it as a communication tool. She is thinking about implementing some kind of strategy to improve communication across the silos that are deeply entrenched within her organisation. When we started talking about the various tools that are available to help – wikis, blogs, message boards, instant messaging, and so on – I reminded her that if her problem is defined as a technological one, it’s unlikely that she’ll be able to solve it. When silos are approached as an IT problem, you get a lot of tools put in, but no real change in communication patterns. You must define silo problems as communication issues if you want to improve things. The way that you define this problem can determine your success in solving it before you even start.
  • Michael Schrage just wrote a post about how many different types of failure there are when we are trying to innovate. He argues that there are many different types of failure, and that we have to be more clear about what we are talking about.

    The underlying distinctions between failures typically overwhelm their similarities. …

    What kinds of failure make the best or most useful resources for your organization? Which failures matter most for the future? …

    When do you declare an “underperformer” a “failure?” Is it determined by semantics, the marketplace, or your CFO? In my experience, managers talk rather differently about “learning from failure” than they do “boosting underachievers.” Indeed, a Google search for “learning from underperformers” got no results. Needless to say, underperformance is a form of failure. Which brings the end of this post right back to its beginning: What are the kinds of failures that matter most to you and your organization? It’s ironic to the point of perverse that our failure to define failure can undermine our ability to learn from it.

    So how we define failure determines whether or not we can learn from it.

  • I’ve argued previously that one of the reasons that people have problems with the idea of innovation is that it is intentionally broadly defined. Here’s what I said:

    … a penguin and an eagle are both birds, yet they look completely different, they act differently, they live in different environments, there’s no clear connection between the two of them. If we try to use the word ‘bird’ to describe two such obviously different things, then it is a useless word, and we shouldn’t use it at all.

    Innovation can be defined clearly. It does get used to signify many different things – because it describes a broad phenomenon: executing new ideas so that they have economic value. It’s a classification equivalent to ‘bird’. Of course there are different ways to do this. There are many different ways to do this. Which is why we have so many different types of innovation to discuss. Incremental and radical, open and closed, design-driven and customer-focused: penguins and eagles. They are among the many different ways that we can execute ideas with economic importance.

    Innovation is a higher level term, which means many things. It’s important to classify the various sub-types as carefully as possible. Last year John and I were doing some consulting and we ran into a guy that said “our firm has to stop encouraging innovation.” This statement was surprising because in all the people we interviewed in that organisation, his ideas were by far the most radical, and by far the most innovative. So how could he argue against innovation? He could because in that organisation, “innovation” actually meant “incremental innovation.” Because his ideas were far from incremental, they weren’t considered. The way that they defined innovation determined the type of innovative ideas they were willing to entertain.

Taxonomy is the basis of all of the earth sciences – like biology, geography and biogeography. But in economics and business research, no one wants to take the time to classify things. Articles that are merely “descriptive” are discounted as being worthless – they’re not real research – real research is theory building. The problem is that you can’t build theory without having clearly defined building blocks. And to have those, you need a bunch of that boring descriptive work.

It’s a real problem – how can make a call to action to encourage more classification? It’s a boring topic. Admit it – even though this is hugely important, how likely are you to share this post? I think the answer is “not very likely at all”. Because classification isn’t interesting. But accurate classification is absolutely essential to solving problems successfully.

We must have clear, usable definitions of innovation and all of its sub-categories, and of failure and all of its sub-categories. The trap that we fall into is that we think of an idea only in terms of one of the sub-categories (say, innovation to mean incremental innovation) – and if someone else uses the term to refer to a different sub-category (innovation to mean radical innovation), we think that they’re wrong, or misguided.

Clear definitions are the foundation of all science. If we want to manage better, if we want to build our innovation processes on a solid foundation, we must spend some time classifying. Because how you define a problem determines if you can solve it.

(photo of Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch from flickr/speakingoffaith under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

11 thoughts on “How You Define a Problem Determines if You Can Solve It

  1. Tim,

    In my Decision Support/Strategic Reporting days, I learned (and “preached”) pretty quickly that the questions asked determine the answer. Ask the “wrong” question and you’ll never get the answer you want to see. Or what you want to answer defines the question you need to ask. So yes, I agree, how you define a problem determines your ability to navigate towards a solution.

    Key to communication is a common language and for that to happen, definitions are required. For example, I found it fascinating that, in any given company, the Finance Dept. would have a different view from the Marketing Dept. while looking at the same data. Marketing says – look at our sales. Finance would say – but what’s the profit? is it due to volume (quantity), price or currency changes? In this case, for a company to solve a problem of diminishing profits – one really needs to define the problem accdg to at least the 3 mentioned categories. Marketing weren’t too interested but Finance sure was. Definition allows focus, necessary for problem-solving.

    That said, there is also a danger of scoping/classifying too early. Sometimes, a broad exploration of a problem is better than defining it.

  2. Truly food for thought. I am in the process of working with a thought leader for innovation in the association/non-profit world toward an “innovation” focused event, unconference-style, to help people from the community get together and work toward real world innovative solutions. But people are slow to sign up and many who did have told me they were scared to sign up because innovation sounds scary.

    I think your post nails our problem on the head. I don’t know that we’ve asked ourselves the right questions to clarify the kind of innovation we are talking about.

    The obvious problem is that enough people haven’t signed up for this event. We want to keep it relatively small, only 50 people, but we have maybe 10 registered and the event is April 22nd.

    But the problem isn’t interest (the event was the result of a lot of online activity calling for this kind of thing). The problem isn’t letting people know (social media is in full effect). The problem is people understanding what we are going to do once they get there…and if it will be worth their time.

    Thanks for your post and if you have any suggestions, my ears are open! :)

  3. Thanks for stopping by KiKi!

    That’s an interesting story. I’ve run across similar problems myself. One possible way around the problem is to bill this initial step as something to do with ‘creativity’ or ‘brainstorming’ – people seem to be a lot less scared of those things than they are of ‘innovation’!

    However, the thing to keep in mind there is that innovation is a three step process – you have to generate ideas, figure out which ones are the good ones & see if they work, and then you have to get the executed ideas to spread. People are a lot more willing to jump in on the first part (it’s the most fun!), but the last two are the ones that determine how successful you are.

    Good luck with the event!

  4. Tim, it’s a very good post, however I ded want to add a point on your response to KiKi

    “innovation is a three step process ”

    I would call it a 4 step process. The precursor to generating ideas is the identification and definition of the problem which needs to be solved.

    On my blog I have an interesting post where problem definition can be reached via the 5-why method.

  5. Thanks for that George. From my perspective, I don’t really care if people think of it as 3 step or 4 – the main point is to get people thinking about it as a process – rather than simply an event where lightning strikes.

    I’ll take a look at your post to see what you’re saying about things.

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