Crafting a Winning Strategy – Defining Your Problem

Beginning with this post, we will be covering four key steps in solving the problems.  For most of my readers, this will probably be business problems, however this same framework can be used for any problem.

These steps, which will be covered over the next several posts, include the following:

  • Why?  This step focuses on outlining and better defining the problem into a useful problem statement.
  • What?  This step identifies your ideal outcome to the problem.
  • How?  Crafts the strategy for solving the problem.
  • Who, When, Where?  The final step creates the action plan for you to execute and solve your problem.

Why is your problem important?

When solving a problem it is always important to ask yourself “why should it be solved?”  By ensuring your stakeholders, customers, and you care about the problem, you can ensure time and resources are not wasted in the pursuit of its solution.  I know this sounds rather silly, if I have a problem, why should I not solve it (the engineer in me cringes at the lack of solutions).  The reality is, some problems are either too expensive (resources, money, time, etc.) or not a big enough impact.  This is a very similar assessment to those who are familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix, another very useful tool in answering the “why”.  Both of these charts are shown below.

Bob Iger, the 20-year CEO of the Walt Disney Company, spoke about some advice in this area in his most recent autobiography, The Ride of a Lifetime.  He always asked the question “is this trombone oil?”  This statement might raise some eyebrows, but he elaborates:

I can’t recall exactly what it was in response to, but in one of our conversations about some initiative I was considering, Dan [Burke] handed me a note that read: “Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil.  You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumes a few quarts of trombone oil a year.”  He was telling me not to invest in projects that would sap the resources of my company and me and not give much back.  I still have that piece of paper in my desk, occasionally pulling it out when I talk to Disney executives about what projects to pursue and where to put their energy.

Create a problem statement

Once you have established that your problem is important and will make an impact, it is time to craft a problem statement.  This will be what guides you to a solution.  There are three points to remember when crafting a problem statement, the problem statement must be quantifiable, focused, and not framed around a solution.

Quantifiable

When there is a goal to achieve, it is much easier to measure your success in solving your problem.  This includes the “what” that needs to be solved, as well as “how”, “when”, “where”, etc.  I know that it may seem like I am jumping ahead to the other three steps mentioned at the beginning of this article, and in some ways, I am.  However, the problem statement needs to fully document this information, so there is a clear idea of what is being accomplished.  The problem statement should include a specific timeline, who is affected, and may require significant time and data before crafting the statement, so be patient and get it right the first time.

Focused

Similar to quantifiable, the problem statement needs to be sufficiently focused as to provide the parameters to the problem.  These parameters identify customer segments, location, expectations, and other very useful information.  It would be wonderful to solve a problem plaguing the entire multinational corporation, however often this is an unrealistic expectation for most.  Find a balance between impact and reasonable achievements for your problem statement, asking what will be the most useful to solve given your resources.

    Not Framed Around a Solution

    The last point is fairly straight forward, don’t put the answer in your problem statement.  I always remember this as “if you already know what the solution is, why haven’t you implemented it yet?”  The intent of a problem statement is to guide you towards a solution, not state the solution outright.

    Putting it Together

    I often see problem statements like this:

    Revenue is down because customers are visiting our competition.

    This is not quantifiable or focused, and states a solution rather than a problem.  While revenue being down is a problem for a company if it is sustained, there can be many reasons why this could be.  Even within the stated “solution” customers visiting the competition can have many reasons.  A more accurate problem statement would be:

    Customer visits to the Orlando store are down 30% from the previous three years, leading to a drop in revenue of 25% during this period.

    This problem statement clearly states percentage declines for both customer visits and revenue, as well as a period of time from which these figures were drawn.  This allows the individual(s) solving this problem to focus on what variables changed during this time to account for the losses, as well as what can be done to correct them.  It also states that these figures are only for the Orlando store, further focusing the problem down to a more manageable problem with a significant impact to the organization if a reasonable solution can be attained.

    Keep this process in mind for your next problem, and you can begin to take your business, team, or life to the next level.  In the next post, you will see what this problem statement will be used for in crafting successful strategies and solving problems.

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