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Define the Problem Before Presenting the Solution

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

We are problem solvers, so when faced with a workplace issue, we are wired to focus on solutions. However, research suggests people are more open to proposals when they are presented with a problem first.

If you looked at the math problem above and solved it, you demonstrated your natural tendency to look for solutions to problems.

A common mistake people make when attempting to persuade others is that they focus on selling their solution to the problem. One reason this happens is because they are familiar with the issue and have already thought through the situation.

In Originals: How non-conformists move the world, Adam Grant speaks to the reason why we should use the problem solution approach when developing an argument. Referencing the work of John Kotter, Grant notes that we tend to prefer the status quo unless we have good reason to make a change.

“When Harvard professor John Kotter studied more than one hundred companies trying to institute major changes, he found that the first error they made was failing to establish a sense of urgency. Over 50 percent of leaders fell short of convincing their employees that change needed to happen, and it needed to happen now. ‘Executives underestimate how hard it can be to drive people out of their comfort zones,’ Kotter writes. ‘Without a sense of urgency, people… won’t make needed sacrifices. Instead they cling to the status quo and resist.’”

Grant suggests most leaders make a common mistake when presenting their ideas:

“To counter apathy, most change agents focus on presenting an inspiring vision of the future. This is an important message to convey, but it’s not the type of communication that should come first. If you want people to take risks, you need first to show what’s wrong with the present. To drive people out of their comfort zones, you have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger at the current state of affairs, making it a guaranteed loss.”

Echoing Grant, Nancy Duarte writes in Illuminate: Ignite change through speeches, stories, ceremonies, and symbols that people “tend to prefer their world as it is, so you’ll need to coax them to move.” She says your success will in part be determined by how well you empathize with those you are trying to persuade:

“You may see the path ahead with clarity, but it’s ambiguous and scary to the people you need to convince. It’s not easy for them to cross the threshold from the comfort of the present to an uncertain future, no matter how sure you are that it’s the right direction. Leaping into something new is scary, especially if the journey seems long and littered with obstacles.”

Duarte stresses the importance of understanding your audience:

“To guide your travelers toward your vision, you need to see the journey through their eyes. Anticipate their reactions by imagining each step along the path as they might experience it, then illuminate the path by communicating clearly and empathetically.”

Duarte says you should begin by stating “what is” and then focus on “what could be.” When you “start by describing life as the audience knows it” you begin to establish a gap between how things are and how things should be.

If your audience isn’t convinced there is a problem to solve then it’s silly to present a solution. You can often tell if you and your audience are on the same page by assessing their nonverbal reaction to the problem. Nodding heads are a sign that they believe what you are saying is true. If you can’t read the nonverbal signals, you can pause and ask, “Do you agree this is a problem that deserves our attention?” Once you establish a shared understanding of the problem, you can present your solution.

Duarte and Grant note the use of the problem solution approach by successful CEOs, politicians, and leaders. Grant highlights the use of this speaking structure in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech:

“What stands out is a shining image of a brighter future. Yet in his 16-minute oration, it wasn’t until the eleventh minute that he first mentioned his dream. Before delivering hope for change, King stressed the unacceptable conditions of the status quo… Having established the fierce urgency of now though depicting the suffering that way, King turned to what could be...The audience was only prepared to be moved by his dream of tomorrow after he had exposed the nightmare of today.”

You can use the problem solution structure to persuade colleagues, sell a product or service to a customer, convince an investor to fund your business, and many other communication situations.


Duarte, N., & Sanchez, P. (2016). Illuminate: Ignite change through speeches, stories, ceremonies, and symbols. Penguin.

Grant, A. M. (2017). Originals: How non-conformists move the world. Penguin.

Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard business press.

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