I have a Beagle. His name is Charlie. This story of Charlie, and his bark, is going to help us think about our approach to problems and solutions. More specifically, this story about Charlie will reveal how easy it is to recommend the wrong, or less optimal, solution because we often focus on the wrong problem. You might say it’s the result of barking up the wrong tree.
“We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.” — Russell L. Ackoff
Setting the Stage
I’ve been told Charlie is the best barker of any dog my kennel has ever heard. By best, they meant a unique, loud, and shrilly howl that sparks a chain reaction throughout the kennel. Oh, and constant when other dogs are near. It penetrates and carries. I live next to many neighboring dogs who like to talk with each other. The deeper voices of the other dogs I can sort of tune out. Charlie’s…not so much.
Charlie barking, even outside, can be a problem when I’m on the phone. His shrill easily penetrates into the house. I know his bark carries across the phone and is a distraction to those listening on the other end.
Solutions Align With the Problem
Our solutions always align with the problem we define. Thus, it’s crucial we define the problem, and make sure it’s the right problem to solve.
In my work experience coaching Agile and product management, I find it common for folks to define problems based on surface-level data or observation, and then push for solutions based on those problem statements. That is fine except for the fact those are often not the real problems to solve, thus the solution isn’t the most effective at achieving what we really need.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
First Principles Approach to Problem Solving
First principles is a critical thinking approach, repopularized by Elon Musk, that breaks a problem or opportunity down into its most basic parts — getting to the root elements of a situation — and then rethinking the problem from the ground up. Re-imagining, if you will.
The process I follow is this:
- Understand the problem
- Identify the first principles
- Ensure it’s the right problem
- Define a desired outcome
- Consider viable solutions
Understand the Problem
Every problem-solving endeavor begins with an initial problem definition. It is our current perspective. In my Charlie example, the problem is Charlie barking when I’m on the phone. I don’t want Charlie barking while I’m on the phone, so the first thought that comes to mind is to stop his barking, or create a condition that reduces the chances he will bark in the first place. Case closed? Not so fast.
I often find the first problem statement is not really the root, or best, problem to solve. Additionally, we tend to put forth solutions early in the process based on that early problem statement — keep Charlie from barking. I believe we can uncover better solutions by critically thinking about other perspectives.
The 5 Whys is a technique I use to peel back the layers a bit to learn more about what I really need. It doesn’t have to be five, but the idea is that you keep asking “why” until you uncover the heart of the matter.
“You can increase your problem-solving skills by honing your question-asking ability.” — Michael J. Gelb
Given my first problem statement and proposed solution, I ask, why do I not want Charlie barking when I’m on the phone? The answer: so those on the other end of the phone do not hear him. Why do I not want others to hear him bark? The answer: it is distracting to the conversation. Why is it distracting to the conversation? The answer: the barking noise may cause the listener to lose focus and my attempts to stop the barking will be disruptive to the call. What I learn through this process is I need Charlie’s barking not to distract the phone conversation. Staying focused on the core problem, and staying away from solutions, I leave the door open to better ideas.
Identify the First Principles
I never assume that the presented problem is the root, or best, problem to solve. Often it is not. This means many proposed solutions are not the best solutions.
Let’s start by breaking down the elements of the barking situation. There is my location while on the phone, triggers that cause Charlie to bark, the barking, and Charlie’s location while barking.
I prefer to take calls from a fixed location, but I can move. The triggers to Charlie’s barking are consistent (e.g. other dogs, animals), but the triggers are unpredictable because they may or may not occur. The impact of the barking varies depending upon whether Charlie is inside or outside. Charlie’s location will either be inside or outside. His location outside in relation to the house is in the back of the house, but could vary from one end of the house to the other. The risk of barking is always present. These are the conditions I am working with.
Ensure It’s the Right Problem
When exploring solution alternatives, it’s easy to become married to our ideas, and look for ways to defend them. I recommend you look for ways to disprove them as the best solution. In this process, you will either validate them or find better options. Let’s take this approach with our initial problem definition.
If Charlie is barking outside my window while I’m on the phone, the first instinct may be to get him to come inside. I presume he is barking at something outside, so bringing him in solves the problem. Maybe.
How would this play out? I text my wife or daughter to please get Charlie. They may or may not get the message and it could be a few minutes. They call for him, he doesn’t listen. They bribe him with a treat and he comes running in (works every time — he loves food).
This solution may solve my immediate need, though it took some effort. What happens if Charlie continues to bark from inside the house, which is a real risk? My new problem would be worse than my original problem. What if I’m home alone?
As for prevention, there isn’t much I can do. Putting him outside is better than risking barking from inside, but I cannot remove the risk completely. Resting my solution on stopping the barking once it starts allows the barking to first make a negative impact, which is less than ideal.
Define a Desired Outcome
What’s the real need? Is stopping his barking really what I need, or is what I need more about not hearing the bark? Truth is, I do not care if Charlie barks. I care that I can hear his bark and that it might disrupt the phone call.
Charlie barking is not my problem. While I am on the phone, where he and I are in relation to each other when he barks is the root problem to solve.
The process of validating or disproving the original problem and solution helps us uncover the real need, or desired outcome. Where we may have initially thought that we need to stop or prevent Charlie’s barking, we learned that the real outcome is that I want to be able to talk on the phone inside my house, while Charlie is barking, without the barking disrupting the phone call. This is ultimately what I want.
Consider Viable Solutions
If I want Charlie to stop barking, my solutions might include bringing him inside, or distracting him with a treat. I know I cannot prevent him from barking, so that option is off the table. If I simply want to not hear the barking, or at least minimize it so it’s no longer an issue for my phone call, I could go to another room in the house to take my call. In that case, my solution has nothing to do with stopping his barking.
How I frame the problem directly impacts how I attempt to solve the problem. As this example demonstrates, the solution is quite different depending upon the identified root problem to solve — stopping vs. not hearing.
The solutions for stopping the barking likely require getting others involved to help, or interrupting my call to address it myself. Bringing the dog inside also does not guarantee the barking stops. If the barking continues, the problem is worse, so there is risk. The solution for not hearing the barking only involves me, and it’s a simple act of moving to another room. No risk either. Often the best solutions are the simplest.
Ready to Tackle Your Problems?
Think about the problems you need to solve right now. What is your barking dog equivalent? Your first problem statement isn’t likely the root problem to solve. Use the 5 Whys technique to peel back the layers to understand what’s really needed. Break the situation down into its most basic facts — disassemble its parts. Think about what needs to be different without thinking about a solution. Critically assess whether that is the right outcome to pursue. Once you know the root problem to solve, consider the solution alternatives across the perspectives. Take action, and iterate.