Are You Solving the Right Problems?

03 - Question MarksWe all solve problems most days. This post provides 4 reasons why we may not always be solving the right problems and a simple approach to make sure we do.

We all solve problems most days. Some are minor problems, whereas others are more fundamental. However, I would like to pose the question: ‘Are we solving the right problems?

This may sound like a strange question – why wouldn’t we be solving the right problems.

In my experience, it is a fundamental question. Solving the ‘wrong’ problems can, amongst other things, waste time and money, increase safety risks, damage organisational reputations and cause people to feel demoralised because they can’t find a solution.

This post provides:

  • Four reasons why we may not always be solving the right problems
  • The implications of not solving the right problems
  • Questions that we can ask to avoid solving the ‘wrong’ problems
  • A simple approach to make sure we are solving the right problems

First, let’s consider four reasons why people end up solving the ‘wrong’ problems.

Reason 1: Not defining the problem

Over the years, I found that one of the most useful things I could do for clients was to help them define the problem.

Sometimes a problem can look impossible, even to experienced people. There is a good reason for this – the problem being discussed is impossible! Typically, this is because the problem is too big and is not well defined.

We need to make sure that the problems we are tackling are solvable, and my response would typically be to ask questions such as:

  • What are you looking to achieve?
  • What is the difference between your current situation and the situation you want?
  • Why do you want to achieve that?
  • What is the scope?
  • What are the constraints?
  • What have you tried already?

Having answered those questions, we can actually define the problem on paper and then look at solving it. This may take a few iterations, but it helps people focus on solving the right problems.

Reason 2: Solving the urgent problems rather than the most important problems

When faced with constant demands on our time, it is easy to solve the urgent but simple problem rather than focus on the more difficult but fundamental problem.

The urgent but simple problems may well be important too. However, if we focus too much of our effort on solving them to the exclusion of the more difficult but fundamental problem, this could be dangerous.

My advice to people (including myself) is to ask:

  • What is the significance of that problem?
  • What will happen if I don’t solve that problem?
  • What will happen if I don’t solve that problem now?

These questions should give different answers for the urgent and the fundamentally important problems.

We all know what we should be doing, but it is easy to get distracted. These questions help focus our thoughts and push us in the direction of solving the right problems.

Reason 3: Solving the problem that gives the ‘preferred’ answer

The answers to some problems may not be popular in our organisation. The fact that they are not popular does not mean that they are not right.

For instance, after a major disaster such as an explosion at an oil storage depot, other organisations with major hazards might be expected to consider the issues and how those issues relate to their operations.

Which organisation would you trust more: the one who sees that problem as ‘Tell me why it can’t happen here’; or the one who sees the problem as ‘What can we learn from that incident so that it doesn’t happen here’.

The former is trying to avoid doing anything, whilst the latter accepts that it may need to take action to manage potential risks.

A way to avoid this is to ask:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • Why do we want to achieve that?
  • What will happen if we do not achieve that?

This should help to identify what problem is being proposed for solution and why. If the answers do not seem right, then alternative answers to those questions should be proposed.

Reason 4: Jumping to solutions

We often feel under pressure to come up with solutions straight away. It can be tempting to make a decision to proceed without analysing the problem first. Sometimes, in real emergencies, people do have to act immediately. However, most people are not in that situation most of the time.

If we have solved a similar problem in the past, it is tempting to use that solution again. Unfortunately, problems are not always the same and solving the old problem could make things worse.

In this case, it is worth asking:

  • What do we need to achieve?
  • What is the context?
  • What could we do given the answer to the first two questions?

This puts the problem in context so that the solution fits the problem.

What’s the best way to solve the right problems?

By now, you can probably see patterns appearing, and realise that the key to solving the right problems is asking the right questions. In particular, we need to define the problems before we start solving them.

In her book The Pyramid Principle, Barbara Minto suggests that problem solving involves answering five questions. This sounds relatively simple, but it provides a powerful framework for problem solving.

My suggestions for answering those five questions are:

1.  What is the problem?  We need to articulate the difference between where we are now and the situation where we would like to be, when we would like to be there and how success would be measured.

2.  Where does the problem lie?  We need to break down our current situation into a range of factors and identify those factors which could be causing the problem.

3.  Why does the problem exist?  We need to analyse each of the factors to establish whether it is causing a problem and why.

4.  What could we do about it?  We need to identify a range of possible solutions that could get us to the situation where we would like to be.

5.  What should we do about it?  We need to decide which solution offers the best chance of getting us to the situation where we would like to be, given the context and constraints. Then get on and make those changes.

About the author:

Dr Mike Webster specialises in risk and regulation, and is a chartered engineer with over 30 years’ experience. He has led risk and regulatory projects in the UK, Europe, Far East and US, and has acted as an expert witness in the UK.

He focuses on construction and structural safety, CDM and risk, and founded MPW R&R to provide Consulting, Forensic and Expert Witness services in those areas.

If you would like to discuss this further, drop Mike a line at or give him a call on +44 (0) 7969 957471.