How to frame problems in a way that helps you solve them efficiently

I was asked to deliver a webinar last week as part of the ramp-up of our training courses. A terrifying thought for a man who works in a data science consultancy, but who is not a data scientist! 

Though I started my working life as a specialist – an engineer, I have found myself becoming more and more of a generalist as time has gone by. The saying ‘jack of all trades, and master of none’ leaps into my head, and I often have to remind myself it concludes with ‘but better a jack of many than a master of one’ when I find myself worrying about having lost a specialism.  

I also try and reassure myself that people carry pocket knives and multi-tools because they are useful in lots of situations, if not the perfect tool for a job. This analogy then got me thinking about the conceptual ‘tools’ I use to solve problems as a generalist, and thought I would give three examples as the content for my webinar. 

Outputs versus Outcomes 

When looking at solving problems, the first thing to think about is what the intended outcome of the exercise is, rather than outputs. An output is the thing that you will create – be it a dashboard, report, or something physical – whereas the outcome is the change that will come about because of this. I’ve often found people are quick to think of outputs, rather than take the time to define the real outcome they want, which can lead to wasted effort and a product that isn’t very effective. So, to frame a problem I would always encourage taking the time to think about what change you want to bring about – and work backwards from there. 

A behavioural change planning tool – OASIS  

I learned OASIS as a communicator tool, but have found it applicable to many behavioural or strategic change problems – and certainly is a useful tool in the generalist tool box. It suggests looking at a problem in the following order: 

  1. Objective – what are you hoping to change or achieve? 
  1. Audience – as specifically as possible, whose behaviour do you want to change – and who do they listen to? 
  1. Strategy – what technique do you want to use to change a behaviour? 
  1. Implementation – what are you going to use, when, and where? 
  1. Scoring – Did your actions make a difference? 

These questions can be a useful handrail when thinking about change. 

A military operational output planning tool – The Seven Questions 

The Seven Questions is a military planning tool used in both small and larger scale activities, and well suited to any problems that involve creating a tangible output. I’ve trimmed and civilianised the questions for inclusion in a consulting tool box – and with each question you should be able to get a ‘deduction’ of what you need to do or a ‘question’ to ask more about. 

  1. What is the situation? – And how does it affect me? A view of the status quo. 
  1. What have I been told to do? – Outcomes! What is it implied that you should do? 
  1. What do I want to achieve? – Outputs! And the steps to get there. 
  1. Where can I best achieve this? – Online, offline, access restrictions and so forth. 
  1. What resources do I need? – People, equipment, and software. 
  1. When do I need to do it? – Using your knowledge of the status quo. 
  1. What constraints do I need? – When will my team have gone too far? 

The Seven Questions tool meshes very nicely with common project management techniques, as it is very output-orientated.

A Root Cause Analysis tool – Five Whys 

Toyota is credited with developing this tool to help with new product features, but it is now quite commonly used for Root Cause Analysis. It’s a very simple technique that literally requires you to ask the question ‘Why?’ five times in order to help you get to the bottom of why something is really happening. It sounds simple, but it is very easy to not take the time to do this, and charge headlong at the apparent problem which may just be a symptom caused by something very different. 

Hopefully at least one of these tools is new to you – and you will be able to add them to your problem solving tool box to help you frame problems properly before rushing in to try and solve them! 

By James Hawkes
Categorized as blog

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