A Problem Well-stated is Half-solved

by Mark Levy

Charles Kettering, the famed inventor and head of research for GM, said “a problem well-stated is half-solved.”

Here, then, are six steps you can take to state a business problem so its solutions become clearer:

1. State the problem in a sentence. A single sentence forces you to extract the main problem from a potentially complex situation. An example of a problem statement: “We need to increase revenue by 25%.”

2. Make the problem statement into a question. Turning the problem statement into a question opens the mind to possibilities: “How do we increase revenue by 25%?”

3. Restate the question in five ways. If you spin the question from a variety of perspectives, you’ll construct new questions that may provide intriguing answers.

For instance, try asking: “How could we increase revenue by 25% in a month?” “How could we increase it by 25% in an hour?” “How could we increase it by 25% in a minute?” “What could we stop doing that might cause a 25% revenue increase?” “What ways can we use our existing customer base to affect the increase?”

4. Give yourself thinking quotas. An arbitrary production quota gives you a better shot at coming up with something usable, because it keeps you thinking longer and with greater concentration.

When I asked you to “Restate the question five ways,” that was an example of an arbitrary quota. There’s nothing magical about five restatements. In fact, five is low. Ten, or even a hundred, would be far better.

5. Knock your questions. Whatever questions you’ve asked, assume they’re wrong-headed, or that you haven’t taken them far enough.

You might ask, “Why do we need an 25% increase at all? Why not a 5% increase? A 500% increase? A 5,000% increase? What other things in the business might need to change that would be as important as revenue?

6. Decide upon your new problem-solving question. Based on the thinking you’ve already done, this step may not even be necessary. Often, when you look at your situation from enough angles, solutions pop up without much more effort.

However, if you still need to pick a single question that summarizes your problem, and none seems perfect, force yourself to choose one that’s at least serviceable. Going forward is better than standing still.

Now you can start brainstorming.

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