Why We Solve The Wrong Problems

untitled-presentation-2Everywhere I look I see organisations and people investing heavily in new initiatives, transformation, and change programmes.  And in almost every case the goals will never be met.

One of the most crucial causes of the failure? The right questions were never asked at the outset.

We default to ideas and plans. Too many of which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning.  We get wrapped up in solutions.

It’s no surprise: we are conditioned to find solutions rather than define problems from an early age.

  • We start off being very good at it. Kids ask about LOTS. Annoyingly so. We tell them to stop asking so many questions.
  • In school we start to be assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating.
  • As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.

Indeed, great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

So we become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.

Here’s a few things to watch out for when considering if your organisation is leaning towards solution rather than problem. And some questions you could ask.

Management is becoming excited by transformation as an end in itself.

Question: What exactly are we being transformed into and who asked for it in the first place?

People start talking a lot about what Apple would do. Or Netflix. Or Uber.

Question: We aren’t Apple, Netflix, or Uber. How are the problems our customers face similar to theirs and if they are, are we the best people to solve them?

Getting excited about building a new app or website

Question: What’s the unique benefit of your solution compared to what’s already available on the market?

Fancy PowerPoint business case pitches at corporate away days and Board meetings

Question: Before you tell us what Google did  can you explain what the impact of your last project was, what failed, and what you’ll do differently this time?

You see – ideas people are regarded as sexy. They are positive, optimistic and the people you want to be around.

The person who keeps asking the difficult questions is often regarded as an obsessive – a detail person -a procrastinator. A complete pain in the arse.

This is the very problem we face – and why we see so much innovation theatre rather than genuine impact.

  • Initiatives and projects come with an over simplification of the problem statement. If indeed such a statement exists at all.
  • There’s a lack of penetration into the root causes of problems. We don’t understand our world half as well as we think we do.
  • Most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition. We simply want to get the product on the street. Even if it’s the wrong product (or the wrong street).

Not so long back Tom Hartland , our Lab Designer, was sitting evaluating a new concept. A senior leader walked past and asked him what he was working on. Tom told them there was a problem with the data, the impact was inconclusive and it needed lots more work.

The response came back – “Well, don’t spend too much time on it – we’ll probably do it anyway.”

I share that anecdote not to embarrass anyone but to illustrate the point.

We are hardwired to doing things rather than purposeful contemplation and questioning.

Innovation , as Philippa Jones said, is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

To have the most impact, it’s simple. Just ask the right questions.


Hey – we have a great job going as Design Lead in the Lab. You need to ask a LOT of questions before you go near designing though. Take a look here or message me if you want a chat. paul.taylor@bromford.co.uk or DM me on Twitter @paulbromford



13 thoughts on “Why We Solve The Wrong Problems

  1. Great post, Paul. There’s so much we can learn from children (hence my blog-post from a few years back), we seem to be fearful of asking too many questions in our adult-professional life – yet as children we’re encouraged to be inquisitive. When did this stop and why?

    1. Thanks Andy. Kids do challenge assumptions instead of accepting things “as is.” Somewhere along the route to adulthood we largely conform to accepting that success is about following an operating manual. It is reversible I think – but takes encouragement!

  2. I need to get better at being wrong then rather than search for solutions to problems. Great blog as ever look forward to these blogs all the time as we try to shape our organisation!

  3. ‘…the most common source of mistakes in management decisions is the emphasis on finding the right answer rather than the right question.’ ( Peter Drucker,’ The Practice of Management’, 1954).
    Drucker is about the only management theorist worth reading,in my opinion.

  4. “So we become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.” => I find it a very accurate description that applies to so many cases. Especially tricky when you are hired as a consultant to solve what your client perceives as a problem… and even if you realised what’s the underlying issue, your hands may be tied too much to shift the focus of your project – since you are expected to solve the specific problem you were hired for. How do you turn such a situation around?

    1. Thanks Robert – now THAT is difficult

      We try to take people through a three stage approach:
      What is the critical problem we trying to solve?
      Where do we spend most of our time: responding to specific problems or on resolving underlying causes and finding new ways to improve?
      Do we learn from problems or are we continually fixing the same problems over and over again?

      As you say though – difficult

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