What Problem Are You Solving?

It’s snowing here today. We should end up with somewhere between six and twelve inches of snow when this storm is done. The problem? It’s a day storm, scheduled to be the worst during commuting hours. Ouch.

The schools are closed, and many businesses have encouraged people to work from home. That way, they can clear most of the snow from the roads with less traffic. That’s the immediate problem.

When you think about problem solving, what’s the first problem you want to solve? Is it the root cause? Are you in the here-and-now, and not in the there-and-then?

One way to discover the root cause of the problem is to use the Five Whys. Ask “Why” five times, and see what happens. Here’s an example:

1. Why am I unhappy in my job?

Because my manager is micromanaging me.

2. Why is my manager micromanaging me?

Because she needs information every hour, on the hour.

3. Why does she need this information?

Because we have this emergency fix, that has to go out. The fix has to be perfect.

4. Why do we have this emergency fix?

Because we “always have time to do it over, but never timeĀ  to do it right.”

5. Why do we work that way?

Because we allow ourselves, or I allow myself, to be pressured into not doing the things I know that will prevent this.

You can see from this dialogue, that the fix needs to be perfect. Why not work that way all the time? There are many things in a work environment that help or resist useful practices, believe me! But now, this person has more empathy with the manager, and can see what to do for this problem, the fix. And, the person has more information about what to do for the larger problem of being unhappy in his or her job.

Asking “Am in the here-and-now” vs. “Am in the there-and-then” is also helpful.

One thing I notice about these snowstorms is that our local television stations assign much more significance to them than I think is warranted. Today’s storm is a great example. It’s not a nor’easter. It’s not a blizzard. It is a storm with heavy wet snow. People should stay inside and let the plows do their work. However, the local stations preempted the national morning news shows. Why? To show us the same shots of snow on the roads. Which weren’t all that snowy.

The significance you apply to a problem has a lot to do with how well you might be able to solve it. If you see it as significant because of past experience, are you seeing it with fresh eyes? Or, are you seeing it with your past experience? How clearly do you see it?

Today, I’m not driving. Neither is Mark. We’re both working from home. That’s normal for me, unusual for him. We are solving the snowstorm problem in the here-and-now. But the local stations preempting the national news? They are overstating the significance of this particular storm. We get snow here. If people don’t realize that by now, that is the real problem.

So, for your question of the week, do you know what problem you are solving? You may have a symptom. You may have a significance. It may be time to ask the question, “What problem am I solving?” That’s what adaptable leaders do.

2 thoughts on “What Problem Are You Solving?

  1. Jyothi

    The 5 Why’s helped me find the root cause for one problem that I was trying to solve but in-vain.
    This post also contains the solution for the problem.
    Thanks Johanna.

    1. johanna Post author

      Jyothi, wow, thank you. I’m happy I was able to help. 5 Whys can be a powerful tool. They don’t always work. But they do work a lot.

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