Defining the Problem

You wouldn’t begin a vacation without a destination in mind.

And you shouldn’t begin any project without a clear understanding of what you intend to accomplish. The key concept is “clear.” That means you want to a have a concise written problem statement.

It won’t be that difficult.

Something caused people to start thinking about this project. The problem might be customer-based: not enough clients are buying your products, or your help desk is flooded with calls. Or the problem might be internal: your employees are making lots of costly errors, or you’re not able to hang on to your best and brightest workers. Or it might be a gap in your offerings or capabilities that is preventing you from exploiting a new opportunity.

If you’re even considering taking on a new project, you already know what the problem is. So just right it down!

But what if your business has more than one problem? Maybe it has lots of problems! If so then organizing them will be the second problem that you’ll need to solve. Your first and most critical task will be to prioritize them. The best method to do this that I’ve ever encountered requires just two common items: a wall and pad of large sticky-notes.

Using eight words or less, write each problem down on its own sticky-note and paste them all up on a wall, the more public the better because you’re going to crowd-source this. You’re going to get the entire organization to tell you what’s wrong. Resist any temptation to limit your audience by pay-grade or title or number of direct reports. Remember this one simple truth, that by the time someone in authority takes notice of an issue, front-line workers are already aware of it. They have been listening to customer complaints or browsing the internet job-boards in search of a position with less stress and more promise than the one they have working for you.

Now you have a wall with post-it notes stuck to it. In the first couple of days a lot of new stickies will show up, but that won’t last very long. Because this collection is on public display, everyone can see if their own concerns have already been posted.

Take down the stickies and pile them up. Put three to five of them back up on a wall (for this stage you might want a different wall, say in a conference room.) If any of the problems seem to be related or redundant, group them together. Then put a few more of them up and ask yourself if any of them are related or redundant to what is already up there. Add those to the groups you’ve already started, or create a new group. Keep going until all the stickies are back up on the wall. Congratulations! You’ve just completed a free-sorting study.

Define a meaningful title for each cluster of problems. Write those on fresh sticky-notes and post them in the same public space that you used for the previous round. Have your team vote for the top three in importance by assigning a number 1, 2 or 3.

The chances are good that you learned about problems you didn’t even know that you had. And you have insights into which problem represents the most critical need – at least from the point of view of your team.

As a leader, you still have lots of work to do. What your team finds most annoying might not be what costs your business the most. Mine your sales data, call center logs and other quantitative sources to ensure that you’re on the right track.

#businessproblem #projects #fourquestions #vacation

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