Defining a problem and developing a consensus

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Have you ever noticed that sometimes there is a solution looking for a problem to solve?  Usually, it is the other way around and there are lots of problems looking for solutions.

The problem with problems is that they are “squishy." They are hard to grab, challenging to get your arms around, and definitely slippery rascals. Just when you think you’ve “got it” they slip away, morph into something different, or disappear entirely.

At least one wise person must have said, “If you can’t define your problem, you don’t have one.” That may be correct in a strict sense. However, instead of not having one, you may have a host of them masquerading under the cover of darkness.

A reasonable question to ask when a problem arrives on your plate is, “What problem are you trying to solve?” I’ve noticed that when asked that way, the problem messenger often stutters and spends considerable time and effort trying to describe it. They feel the pain of an issue but cannot detail its cause. They are convinced that a major challenge exists but do not understand it well enough to then proffer a solution.

A long time ago, an individual - I can’t remember who to give the credit to - opined that most problems are just symptoms. Symptoms that are masking the real issues creating conflict, pain, suffering or just confusion.

I remember deciding to live for a week using that perspective in virtually all conversations and interrelationships. Any action, activity, or observation I experienced, I mentally conformed it into a symptom and looked, probed, or investigated the issue searching for the real problem. What an amazing experience. I learned so much about myself, others, and the world we live in.

When you assume that everything has a root cause, the world explodes exponentially.

When told that someone could not make an appointment, it prompted the question, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Typically, the actual reason for the cancellation emerged.

When a staff member asked me to speak with a client, I asked, “Give me the background that leads to your request." Often there was an unstated problem that needed solving or a lack of knowledge that our training programs had not addressed.

Try it. Assume that the next issue facing you is a symptom and dig for the real issues before you even begin to address the surface symptom. I’d love to hear your stories.

Here is the bottom line on problems: If you can’t state them accurately or clearly, the proposed solution won’t solve the problem.

There is an interesting reverse issue. You develop a way to do something, a solution to a problem without knowing exactly what the problem is. Then you start casting around for the issue you can solve, and you find there is no clear problem available. Confusing and disconcerting, isn’t it?

Here is an example: 12 plus years ago I figured out a way to set up a retirement plan for workers outside the United States. Quite simple in some respects because all you have to do is set up an off-shore investment account and then record-keep the information according to a pre-agreed upon plan or formula. Easy, right?

Here was the problem: first of all, I could not find anyone to do the recordkeeping. Even more frustrating was that I could not find a consensus among any groups that desired or indicated they needed such a service.

Twelve years pass and I remember the solution conceived so many years before. Interestingly, I now have the answer to the record keeping part of the issue. Has anything changed about the issue of need?

On a recent speaking engagement in Greece, a mission organization leader asked, almost out of the blue, “Could you put together a retirement plan for the Foreign Nationals affiliated with our Mission?” Voila! The need surfaced and I already had the outline of a great answer. The problem slid into the solution, rather than the solution surrounding the problem.

Now the challenge is to determine if any other mission organizations have a similar need. In preparation for another missions conference, I contacted a number of mission leaders and posed the question. I then asked them to gather at the conference for a quick review of the topic and input from many into the subject.

Initially, the response was that there was very little need for such a program although it would be nice for the few people that would use it. What happened next was interesting. The group grasped the solution and began to dig into the pieces that made up the problem.

Should US mission organizations be responsible for funding the retirement plan for Foreign Nationals? Quite a spirited debate took place and out of it came the consensus that no, they were not responsible but that they would still be held accountable for the moral liability.

The dialogue then morphed into an understanding that there was the obligation to make sure the issue of long-term funding was understood and addressed by the non-US entities and their leadership. Along with that understanding came the realization that bringing an issue to the forefront of conversations creates the responsibility to provide, at the very least, a workable solution. Problem identification without solution leads to blame for the problem identifier.

We are in the process of now building a consensus around a newly recognized and understood problem using an operational solution 12 years in the making.

I thought you’d enjoy this somewhat unusual perspective about problems, their solutions, and building consensus together.

If you have input or further insight into this issue or anything related, please do not keep your light under a barrel. Comment below.

Bruce