Are you solving the right problem?


Chances are, you are not solving the right problem. In a survey published in the Harvard Business Review of 107 C-suite executives, 85% thought their organization was bad at problem diagnosis.

The problem is that we human beings are bad observers of our own reality. Our self-defense mechanisms prevent us from seeing certain situations; that is why it is easier to clearly see someone else’s problem and give them advice.

In Vistage we have an expression, “The problem named is the problem solved.”

We want to make sure we are solving the right problem. Therefore, Vistage trains its chairs in a process where the chair facilitates the members asking clarifying questions about the issue before giving suggestions. This is a true story illustrating how it works.

Diagnose the malady by the symptoms

During one Vistage meeting, Joe asked, “How do I bring my company back to profitability? This issue is important because my cash is running low and I can’t pay my vendors. I am planning on laying off some of my staff. I am asking you, my peers, to help me find the best way to do this.”

Members asked various questions about Joe’s business:

“How long has this been a problem?”

“What options do you have?”

One member asked, “Did you bring financial statements?”

Fortunately, Joe had statements from the past three months that this member examined. After a few minutes, the member interrupted and announced:

“Joe, you don’t have a profitability problem; you have an accounting problem! Your accountant is putting expenses (like a rent deposit and purchase of new equipment) where they don’t belong. The deposit belongs on the balance sheet and the equipment should be depreciated. You are trying to solve the wrong problem!”

“Why don’t I have enough money to pay my bills?” Joe objected.

“You have a cash flow problem. You invested in more space and bought new equipment because your business is growing but you have doubled your accounts receivable and have not collected the cash.”

Unbiased peer insight sheds light on the real issue

A key part of our issue process is, after some time asking clarifying questions, we ask if the issue the member stated is the real issue? The chair will then receive nominations from the other members on what they see, or feel may be the real issue. In Joe’s case, laying off people would have been solving the wrong problem; it would have made it even worse since he was going to lay off his collections clerk.

The reason this process works (Vistage has been using it for 60 years) is that the members are unbiased outsiders who have no other agenda and are not emotionally invested in the problem. We seek only to help the member presenting the issue become a better leader and see blind spots.

Albert Einstein said:

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

I say, if you have an issue, present it to your peer group and make sure you are solving the right problem.

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