Solving the Right Problems

by Ian I. Mitroff, Ph.D.

Dr. Mitroff is Harold Quinton Distinguished Professor of Business Policy, Graduate School of Business, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is author of a forthcoming book Smart Thinking for Crazy Times (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 1998) from which this is adapted.

Because management isn't an exact science, and perhaps never will be, helps explain why it is so prone to fads.  The tendency to leap from one fad to the next, to adopt the latest with the same zeal and enthusiasm as those which preceded, and to abandon each in succession and as quickly as the next appear is responsible for much of the cynicism and despair in today's organizations.  If fads fool anyone, it is only those at the top who push them, not those at the bottom and middle who are forced to implement and to suffer them.

Smart Thinking

As far as I know, there's only one true and consistent way of not getting caught in fads.  It consists of the constant exercise of critical thinking, or what I call Smart Thinking.  The need for Smart Thinking has never been greater.  While Smart Thinking has never been a luxury, it's an absolute necessity in today's world.

Those who are adept at Smart Thinking know how to cut through complex issues, ask the right questions, and solve the right problems.  The ability to spot the right problems, frame them correctly, and implement appropriate solutions to them is the true competitive edge that will separate the successful individuals and organizations from the also-rans. 

Solving the Wrong Problem Precisely

A textbook case of what can happen when an organization with exemplary goals fails to think critically and therefore creates a major crisis for itself, is the following.  For more than a decade, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has granted wishes of terminally ill children.  In the process, it has become one of the most respected charities, world-wide.

Recently,  however, it was severely criticized because it arranged what a teenager suffering from a brain tumor wanted most:  to shoot a Kodiac bear in Alaska.  The Make-A-Wish Foundation contacted Safari Club International, which collected donations, airline tickets, a rifle, an outfitter and a taxidermist.  The result was that the Make-A-Wish Foundation now is on the hit list of virtually every animal-rights group.

The decision to grant the teenager's wish is a tragic, but classic, example of the failure of critical thinking to occur.  The result is almost always the same:  solving the wrong problem precisely.  If we assume that Safari Club International is the most effective way of achieving the teenager's wish, then the combined decision to grant the wish and to use Safari Club International is a premier example of solving the wrong problem precisely .  In somewhat different terms, it's a classic example of solving the wrong problem in the most efficient way possible.  That is, if we grant that Safari Club International is the "most effective means available" of solving the initial problem of "granting the teenager's wish," then Safari Club International is the "best" solution to the wrong problem.  It's a prime example of muddled thinking.

The important point is that all "real problems" have more than one way of being stated.  There's a wise saying that "whoever controls the definition of a problem controls its solution."  Equally wise are the observations:  "a problem well put is half solved," "the first definition of an important problem is almost invariably wrong," and "never trust a single definition of an important problem."

For example, in the case of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a better statement of the problem is how to grant the wish of children without violating ethical constraints.  Thus, the Foundation could have redefined the notion of "shooting" a bear to mean "shooting a picture" of the animal, not literally taking its life.  In this case, the problem would have been one of finding the most effective way of getting the child to Alaska and helping him take a photograph of the Kodiak bear.

The Fundamental Flaw

All of the serious errors of management can be traced to a major fundamental fault or flaw, solving the wrong problems precisely, or muddled thinking.  The overwhelming body of books on management contributes to the error of solving the wrong problem precisely.  They assume implicitly that one already knows what the important problems are:  how to downsize efficiently, how to improve the chance for success in the global economy, how to instill the correct re-engineering approach, how to design the best reward system, etc. 

In each case, the critical unstated argument or assumption is:  "the essential problem our organization is facing is 'downsizing,' 'global competitiveness,' etc."  While the assumptions may be correct, they're so critical that they deserve to be challenged in the strongest way possible.

Five Types

I've determined that there are five basic types of solving the wrong problem precisely.  Each type is distinct in the sense that it's a clearly identifiable instance of muddled thinking.  Nonetheless, they are not independent.  In fact, each reveals a different aspect or dimension of a complex phenomenon.

Let me summarize each of these types briefly.

1.  Picking the wrong stakeholders.

Description:  Focusing on a narrow set of stakeholders; concentrating primarily on one stakeholder; ignoring other stakeholders and especially their reactions; involving a small set of stakeholders in the formulation of problems.  For instance, the Make-A-Wish Foundation most likely assumed that the rest of the world would think like them, and hence, there would be no uproar.

Strategies for avoiding muddled thinking:   Never make an important decision or take an important action without challenging at least one assumption about a critical stakeholder; also, consider at least two stakeholders who can oppose one's actions.

2.  Narrowing one's options.

Description:  Selecting a narrow or restricted set of problem-solving options; not considering a broad set of options or alternatives.

Strategies for avoiding muddled thinking:  Never, never accept a single definition of an important problem; almost by definition of the term "important," it is vital to produce at least two very different formulations of any problem which is deemed important.

3.  Picking the wrong language of variables.

Description:  Using a narrow set of disciplines, business functions, or variables in which to express the basic nature of a problem.

Strategies for avoiding muddled thinking:  Never produce or examine formulations of important problems which are phrased solely in technical or in human terms alone; always strive to produce at least one formulation which is phrased in technical terms and at least one other which is phrased in human terms.

4.  Narrowing the boundaries/scope of a problem.

Description:  Drawing the boundaries of the scope of a problem too narrowly; not being inclusive enough.

Strategies for avoiding muddled thinking:   Never draw the boundaries of an important problem too narrowly; broaden the scope of every important problem up to and just beyond one's comfort zone.

5.  Ignoring parts/systems connections.

Description: Focusing on a part of a problem instead of the whole system; focusing on the wrong part; ignoring the connection between parts and wholes.

Strategies for avoiding muddled thinking:  Never attempt to solve an important problem by fragmenting it into isolated tiny parts; always locate and examine the broader system in which every important problem is situated; in most cases, the interactions between important problems are more important than the problems themselves.

The concept of solving the wrong problem precisely forces us to jump up a level of abstraction.  It asks us to look at the big picture—the whole forest—before we leap, or get caught up in the individual trees.  It asks us to consider various ways of looking at an issue or problem before we settle on a particular one.

The fate of every organization depends less and less on those who can solve canned or given problems, and more and more on critical thinkers—Smart Thinkers—who can define, and even redefine, the hellishly difficult problems facing us.

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