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TOSCA an Algorithm for Framing Problems

We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.
Russel L. Ackoff

In case you were wondering, those are ducks on the table. The facilitator gave us six pieces of LEGOs and asked us to create ducks. You may think this is a well-defined problem. I find it amazing though, how each of us in a group of ten came up with a completely original design. Our unique perspective and our experiences and skills hugely influence our solutions to problems.

How we perceive a situation will heavily influence the issues we identify and the solutions we find. If you put one person into a situation, they get stuck. When you put another into the same situation, they solve it in an instant or solve it in a way that you would have never expected. You can frame problems differently leading to unique solutions. Outside school there are rarely problems with an ultimate right solution. To go a step further, there are rarely situations with an indisputably defined problem. Individual solutions may have different utility and consequences depending on your lens and purpose. The fundamental question is, if you can guide your thinking to frame a problem in the most practical way given your context and purpose. 

I read about TOSCA in Cracked It! by Bernard Garrette, Corey Phelps, and Oliver Sibony. TOSCA is a simple problem scoping framework to help facilitate the development of the core question that will set the focus for the problem solving effort. It is another tool for identifying the key question. I introduce a similar concept talking about Preparations in my Book Summary for Succeeding as a Management Consultant.

TOSCA is an abbreviation for Trouble, Owner, Success Criteria, Constraints and Actors.

  • Trouble: What are the symptoms that make this problem real and present? Be specific; Avoid interpretation or solution ideas; Ask "Why now?"
  • Owner: Whose problem is this?
  • Success Criteria: What will success look like, and by when? Include a quantified target if possible.
  • Actors: Which other stakeholders have a say, and what do they want?

Once you have identified the answer to all the points on the TOSCA checklist, you are ready to craft the core question. A well-articulated core question reflects a rational choice of scope and is consistent with the TOSCA checklist - i.e. it addresses the Trouble, phrased from the Owner's perspective, states the Success Criteria, recognizes the Constraints, and identifies relevant Actors.

In the book Cracked It! the authors discuss the desperate battle music studios were waging against pirating at the end of the 1990s'. Their battle was futile and stemmed from asking the wrong question. As contrast, Steve Jobs could frame the problem differently, and he found a remarkably different and more successful answer to his version of the core question: iTunes. Studios defined the problem as losing revenue on CDs due to people downloading instead of purchasing. Their focus was to protect the market for CDs. Instead, it could have been about exploiting the new market of downloading. Had the Music Studios have access to TOSCA they might have come up with a different focus question, for example: In a context where young consumers are increasingly downloading pirated music files, and knowing that enablers of that behavior - broadband access and digital playback device - are becoming more accessible, what actions can we take that would restore an X-percent revenue growth rate, with a minimum return on sales of Y-percent, in three years’ time? This question might have led them to a different, more consumer focused and more profitable solution.

TOSCA is an excellent tool to use daily. You can think of TOSCA as a simple procedure for thinking through a problem or situation and to help you come up with the most appropriate focus question, solving which will lead to an optimal outcome. You may use TOSCA as an Algorithm of Thought. To understand the concept of Algorithms of Thought better, I recommend you look up True Algorithms of Thought Have Arrived on CORTEX FUTURA.  

For Geeks

I use Roam Research for note taking and thinking. I have created a template, for TOSCA using Roam42's SmartBlock capability. Here's my TOSCA template in case you'd like to incorporate it into your daily flow.

- #42SmartBlock TOSCA
    - #TOSCA
        - **Trouble:** <%INPUT:What are the symptoms that make this problem real and present? Be specific; Avoid interpretation or solution ideas; Ask "Why now?"%>
        - **Owner:** <%INPUT:Whose problem is this?%>
        - **Success Criteria:**<%INPUT:What will success look like, and by when? Include a quantified target if possible.%>
        - **Actors:** <%INPUT:Which other stakeholders have a say, and what do they want?%>
        - **Core Question:** <%CURSOR%>
TOSCA SmartBlock in Roam
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