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Book Summary: What's your Problem?

What's your Problem - book cover

  • How much time, money, energy, etc. do you waste by solving the wrong problems?
  • What if you could get better at solving the right problems?
What's your Problem by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg is one of the best books I have read on the subject of solving problems. He asserts, that it is critical that we pay attention to how we frame problems. If we misframe problems, we may be at risk of coming up with a solution to the wrong problem (i.e. a wrong solution) and wasting tremendous amount of time, money and energy or even worst, creating additional problems that may be even tougher to solve later on.
The way you frame a problem determines which solutions you come up with. 
By shifting the way you see the problem - that is, by reframing it - you can sometimes find radically better solutions.

A personal example 

I remember when our son started kindergarten. At home his behavior changed. We thought he was ill-behaving. He didn't tie his shoelaces, he didn't put his toys away, he didn't wash his teeth voluntarily, he made a big fuss out of getting dressed, etc. Recognizing the problem, my wife and I devised a solution to incentivize him to improve his behavior. Whenever he did something "good" on his own initiative he would get a bonus point, which we were tracking on a sheet on the fridge. Collecting ten points earned him treats. His behavior at home improved visibly. We were very proud of our solution. 

After few days however, we were informed that he had repeatedly gotten into fights with other children at the kindergarten. This was out of character for him since normally he was not an aggressive boy. This is when we understood that we have framed the problem incorrectly to begin with. It wasn't the issue that he was ill-bahaving and would become an ill-mannered adult if we did not intervene, but that kindergarten was a big change for him which drained his emotional batteries. He was doing his best to behave well at kindergarten, but he needed space to relax and recharge at home. By introducing the incentive scheme we overloaded him with responsibility. Had we looked at the situation from his perspective and framed the problem better, we could have avoided pushing him to his breaking point, leading to fights at the kindergarten.

A professional (personal) example

Source: Standish Group Study of 2000 Projects at 1000 Companies

Software development and implementation in corporate environments is another typical example of providing a solution to an incorrectly or incompletely framed problem. This is why 45-60% percent of all software features are never used. They were specified, developed, tested, implemented and are being maintained based on poorly understood business needs. In my experience there is a very strong temptation to come up with a solution concept before the problem was ever properly defined. This is why people look to solve problems with systems, that should really be solved with process and people. For example, an activity is automated, when in fact it should have been eliminated altogether since it is unnecessary (or waste as you would call it in Lean Six Sigma).

Thomas hits the nail right on the head. In my experience good vs. bad framing is the key difference between projects that deliver lasting value (the "RIGHT" projects) vs. projects that deliver products that end up on the shelf (the "WRONG" projects). In some cases systems are developed for millions of dollars that are never actually used. 

It is my opinion that there is far too much discussion about project management methodologies. About doing the project RIGHT, focusing on delivery once the charter has been created. At the same time there is not enough dialogue about framing of projects, defining the RIGHT projects, and focusing on the work leading up to the charter. A poorly framed project delivered very well will most often create less value then a well framed project even if it is delivered poorly. 

What's your Problem addresses this pre-project phase and provides a set of very practical approaches that will help you frame your problem right.

Book summary

Thomas introduces a simple three step process:

  1. Frame the problem. Asking what problem we are trying to solve. Double checking that indeed we are addressing the right problem, and understanding those people and groups that are involved. 
  2. Reframe the problem.  This involves looking outside the frame. Re-thinking the goal by assessing our assumptions. Identifying cases when a similar problem was solved by us or someone else. Determining our own contribution to the problem and looking at the problem from the perspective of others. 
  3. Move forward. Testing that we understand the problem well. Choosing the frame to focus on, and getting people to come with us on the journey to solve the problem.

I created a mind map wallchart for myself providing a complete overview of the three step process introduced in the book. This mind map based summary is detailed enough to be useful on its own, though I admit that some of the statements on the map, without having read the book, may not be detailed enough to be applicable. The solution I recommend to this problem of incompleteness is to put aside couple of hours to read the book. Trust me, it will be time well spent.

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