[I’ve posted this into a forum in response to whether I agree or disagree with Coert Visser and his article “The Problem with Problem Analysis” as a requirement of my Problem Solving & Decision Making in R&D course at UPOU]
I agree mostly with Coert Visser’s points for the following key reasons:
- What you focus on is what you measure and what you measure is you get. Focusing on the problems is counterproductive.
- Countless hours can be spent on analysis of a problem (or anything actually e.g. meetings) without necessarily being productive.
- Without conscious monitoring of the alignment of activities to purpose and objectives, it is very easy for people to get side tracked and lost in seas of thoughts of exploration, analysis or arguments and varying perspectives.
- I have a personal preference for a focus on constructiveness, clear purpose, objectives and goals to any activity for they provide better context, scope and meaning. It also reinforces the flow of efforts from the subjective to objective as well as a the maximum utilisation of any and all efforts, therefore driving performance, improvement or ultimately, results.
- The purpose of the awareness of having a problem is more about spurring action, whether the action is inaction or acceptance but in problem analysis activities it’s more often for solving and improving a situation. As in therapy or self-improvement, awareness is the first step to healing (1).
A conditional agreement
That said, I also believe in a balance that can be achieved in doing problem analysis while still being constructive and solutions-oriented. For instance, insight that can be gained in problem analysis can build intellectual property that can be useful and valuable in the long-term. The same insight can also embed intangible benefits such as enabling deeper, systematic/systems-oriented understanding of the connectedness of things — a skill in synthesis (2) which helps enrich experiences that could contribute to innovative problem solving or intuitively being able to decide quickly and solve problems in the future (3). Besides, experience is the best teacher and problem analysis can help bring about priceless learning experiences if directed properly.
Suggested thinking – a sanitation / constructiveness check
How can we balance doing problem analysis with the value in problem acknowledgement activities? Specifically, how can we focus on being constructive, productive and solutions-oriented as we analyse problems?
I imagine a method that examines and filters scope/high-level and conceptual level work plans or information on the outcomes and objectives desired. My initial reflections had me arrive at the principle of performance and risk. Given the intention to get away from unproductive, irrelevant and useless information, problem analysis just brings about information that may then either be:
- positively influencing and useful to the purpose of inquiry or in attaining an objective whether requiring minor or major modifications or additional activities,
- neutral, i.e. neither positive or negatively affecting one’s purpose, or
- considerate and preventive of risks to achieving performance and so, positively influencing, useful and relevant information, still.
Using the suggested outlook, below are some questions which could be helpful as a ‘sanitation / constructiveness check’ to the problem analysis work plan. It could also help to be specific about the amount of time or resources, or risk appetite that would be allocated to exploring the assessment of a problem analysis activity as a sort of nice-to-have activity so long as a sense of the primary plan or objectives have been sorted out in priority.
The ‘sanitation’ / constructiveness checks
- What kind of information are sought for and for what purpose/s will they be used?
- What kind of organisational objectives will the information derived be useful for?
- What kind of measurable impact can the information be helpful in bringing about?
- What kind of short, medium or long term benefits and organizational value could be achieved from arriving at the information?
- What kind of opportunities could be lost without the information that can be obtained through problem analysis or if it were not conducted at all?
- Will the particular piece/s of information produced through problem analysis prevent certain risk/s from reoccurring? Will they help reduce the potential for circumstances to trigger other related problem/s?
The thinking process as well as the answers to these questions could hopefully help to figure out which problem analysis exercises can be useful or when problem acknowledgement suffices. Happy to listen to other ideas to devising a way to methodically get to the tipping point for problem analysis and problem acknowledgement.
More on being positive and constructive (but first..)
I just also have to react and point out the emotional baggage or undercurrent that the word problem has earned and thus, brings. Problems in problem analysis as a concept already limits, compartmentalizes or inoculates thinking using a ‘problem’ lens than if we use a neutral or positive lens so to speak. Perhaps the intensity of the restriction it brought may have even contributed to among the reasons that catapulted the drive to promote problem acknowledgement instead, further labelling problem analysis a little more negatively, veering attention away from it as if possibly throwing the baby out with the bath water so to speak.
Before actually jumping into a conclusion, why do I bother calling this out? For ‘problem’ or ‘risk’ in Chinese is written in the same way as the characters for the word ‘opportunity’ — being able to take different perspectives, as well as integrating and synthesizing them is key to more productive and creative problem solving (2). Seeing problems as they are and naming or framing the problem analysis activity as it is does not encourage the sense of creativity that is essential in problem solving. A simple search on the psychological effects of framing should more clearly enlighten us on how it affects thought processes and responses and or perhaps, how these can be changed.
Thus, I suggest the use of more neutral or positive terms, perhaps specifically agreeing to be mindful of substituting the word situation instead of ‘problem’ and use the term situational analysis instead. Hopefully it should contribute to bringing about a more engaged, objective and constructive pre-disposition to problem solving.
(1) Becker-Phelps, Leslie, Ph.D. (2010 July 6). Self-awareness is vital to self-improvement. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/making-change/201007/self-awareness-is-vital-self-improvement
(2) Pink, Daniel (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Riverhead Trade
(3) Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux