Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Clearly defining the problem you want to solve is an important step in the problem solving process. However, individuals and teams often rush through or ignore this step. In doing so they make some common mistakes that result in a variety of negative outcomes including wasted time, confusion, and low engagement from decision makers. This article provides insight about how you can improve your communication by framing problems clearly and in terms that matter most to your audience.
Avoid framing the problem as a disguised solution
A disguised solution is a problem statement where your audience can infer your solution. For example, “We don’t have customer relationship management software.”
Not having something usually isn’t a business problem. When I hear statements like this, I ask, “What is the business problem that would be solved if we had CRM software?”
Business leaders don’t typically care about software. What do they care about? They care about increasing revenue and decreasing expenses. They care about their goals, key performance indicators, and the mission, vision, and values of the organization.
Here’s the problem framed differently: “We are missing opportunities to convert prospects to customers.” In other words, the company is missing opportunities to make money. That sounds like a statement that a decision cares about.
Avoid framing the cause of the problem as a disguised solution
When discussing the causes of a problem, again, it’s common to define the cause as a disguised solution. For example, if we argue “We are missing opportunities to convert prospects to customers” then we should not suggest the cause is “We don’t have customer relationship management software.” Instead, a more precise statement would be, “We are not capturing and using information we have about our prospects.” This is a cause.
Taking the time to think through the precise problem and possible causes will improve the clarity of your communication.
Talk in terms that matter most to your listener
We tend to frame issues from our perspective without thinking about how others might see the problem. This is especially true when employees attempt to communicate problems to organizational decision makers. For example, we wouldn’t want to say “Our front desk system is inefficient.”
Why might a decision maker not care about the front desk system being inefficient?
They don’t have to use the system.
They think of themselves as “big picture” people and don’t want to micromanage a process.
The lower labor cost for front desk workers who use the system might justify the inefficiency.
Instead, we might argue, “We are not living up to our commitment to offer high quality service to guests. One reason for this problem is that it's taking too long to check in a guest.” This statement frames the problem in terms that are relevant for the listener and provides a clear cause.
Write a clear problem statement
Accept that your initial problem statement is likely to be vague and complicated. When trying to frame a problem, get it out of your head and write it down. Once an idea is written, you can make it clearer. Move beyond opinions and find evidence of the problem, but don’t try to include the evidence in your problem statement. Talk to people experiencing the problem, and list as many causes to the problem as you can. One sign of progress is when you can write the problem in one sentence. In fact, simple sentences are best because they are easy for you to say and easy for your audience to understand.