Business psychology

Defining your problem is the first step to finding the solution

- May 11, 2017 3 MIN READ

I have a problem. It might be familiar. I have a very long list of activities required to grow my business and each day I complete one or two, but add three or four. The list is expanding, as is my frustration. I can never quite get ‘there’.

There are some obvious solutions.

  • I could improve my productivity.
  • I could employ someone to help me.
  • I could clone myself (well, maybe not).

And when faced with a problem, this is what we usually look to – the obvious; solutions based on our previous experience, the experience of those around us or whatever is salient to us at that moment.

‘I read an article on productivity apps this morning. I’ll download an app.’

‘Mike has a virtual assistant and he gets a lot done. I’ll ask him about hiring a VA.’

If we’re lucky we hit on a solution that works immediately. Hooray.

More commonly we try something and it doesn’t work so we try something else. We keep trying new things until we hit on a solution. It’s an inefficient and frustrating cycle of trial and error with the occasional quick win.

Is there a way to shortcut this process? I reckon there is.

Step 1: Clearly defining your problem

Psychologists classify problems in four ways:

  • Routine
  • Non-routine
  • Well-defined, and
  • Ill-defined.

Problem solving is simple when the problem is routine and well defined. If my problem is getting to an appointment on time when my husband is using our car I can look for simple alternatives. I could catch public transport, walk, take a cab, ask a friend for a lift. There are endless alternatives. I know my goal. I have good knowledge and understanding of my options so I make a selection and take action.

But many problems at work and in life are not simple, routine and well defined. They are novel, complex and ill-defined. Take my example at the top of this piece. What is my problem exactly?

  • Is it that I don’t have enough time?
  • Is it that I’m not productive?
  • Is it that I’m adding unnecessary tasks to my list?

What is my goal?

  • To reduce my to do list?
  • To reduce my frustration?
  • To grow my business?
  • To get ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is?)

Do you see what’s going on here? I haven’t defined my problem. I don’t know what I’m trying to achieve so I’m unlikely to find the right solution to get there.

Try this: Swap your problem for a goal.

Rather than trying to find a solution to a problem, ask yourself ‘What am I trying to achieve?’

What is your goal? What does success look like? What is the bigger picture here?

Pull it apart. Is it one goal or multiple goals? Can you define individual goals? Can you pin them down? It can help to write it out or talk it through with a coach. Once you’ve got to the heart of the issue and you’ve defined what you’re trying to achieve, the more likely it is that the solution will reveal itself.

Step 2: Think solution, not problem

Once you’ve defined your problem as a goal, it helps to adopt a success mindset to prompt solutions. Consider your goal and ask yourself these questions:

What has worked for me in the past?

When is the problem not so bad?

What has helped me with similar goals?

What’s already working?

These are solution-focused questions. We call them that because they prompt you to move away from the problem and get you focusing on where you can take action to find the best solution.

Another question to ask yourself.

Do I really have a problem? Or is it just worry? Sometimes we get caught in the emotion of a situation and concern that things that are not working as we’d like. It feels as though we have a big problem but when we break it down we’re just worried and overwhelmed. To clarify whether your problem is real and solvable right now, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this a real and likely problem that I’m worried about?
  • Is the problem something happening now?
  • Is the problem something I have control over?

If the answer is ‘no’ each time, you’re probably in the ‘stressed and worried’ zone. These stress management tips may help.

As for me, I’m going to forget about my to-do list, take a step back and get clearer on my business goals. I’m sure I’ll find a solution in no time.

Thanks for your help! Ellen.