What is the problem you are trying to solve?

I was spending some time this week doing some ground work with a group of councils. Nothing exciting – just establishing across a dozen or so organisations how much work there was, of what type, and how many people were involved in dealing with it. Just preparing the ground so that we have some facts with which to predict whether the ideas we’ll end up piloting are going to have any real impact. As a way of breaking up the day, I decided to run a short interlude based on something I’d read recently.

Side note: we work in a professional context and it is really easy to read ‘Planning’ and related blogs and news sites and stay in the ‘bubble’. For years I have been arguing that planners who want to get on should read MJ – council leaders need people who can understand broader organisational pressures.

More recently, I’ve come to realise that broadening the variety of news is only part of the story. It’s even more important to develop your thinking. Years ago I stumbled into the Farnham Street blog and over the course of my lunchtimes I think I have read every word.

The session I ran on Friday was based on the post Warren Berger’s three-part method for more creativity.

Why is there a problem?

The process began with asking a deliberately broad and ill-defined question. Why is there a problem? As you might imagine with a group of 20 or so there was a mixture of awkward silence and a wide variety of ‘big’ and ‘small’ answers. Some examples:

  • There isn’t a real problem, it is one of perception
  • There is a lack of consistency across our organisations
  • The regulations by which we operate are crap
  • We represent a delay to people trying to get things done
  • We mediate competing interests, each side will see us a different problem
  • There is lots of process and little value created by it

The method offered by Warren Berger then goes on to suggest follow-up questions that move through the problem-solving process. At the time, I bailed on the process (the sandwiches had arrived) because it was clear that we as a group had a problem about our problem. As usual for me, it took a bit of reflection and a pint at The Murderers to be able to put it into words.

Oooh yes, let’s do ‘transformation’

Projects in local government are often arrived at by way of horse trading. If this then that. In our case, if ‘transformation’ then ‘flexibility’. Because the goal is expressed in terms than can mean many different things to different people the hard work at the outset is skipped. And this is true for projects that have ‘deliverables’ and all that jazz – a set of deliverables does not solve a problem.

And this clarity about the problem matters. It became clear as we were wrapping up for the day that there were several versions of an unspoken problem around the table. There are two consequences of this absence of definition

  • “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved” [Charles “Boss” Kettering]: by not saying the problem out loud its impossible to understand whether the actions you’re proposing are going to solve it. And that matters because …
  • It’s surprisingly easy to make things worse rather than better. Failing projects don’t represent a lack of improvement – they often lead to things getting worse

What does a good problem look like ?

It’s not for me to suggest what the correct problem is for this group. However I can offer a couple of example problems to show how important it is to create the right framework at the outset:

  1. Our costs are too high to compete with the private sector
  2. We are not ready to compete with the private sector

Problem 1 is (I think) where some people are in the group. It leads to a rigorous focus on cost, probably to restructuring with the intention of reducing overheads and having slightly better economies of scale.

Problem 2 has a broader focus – what is it that we should be thinking about ? It leads naturally on to more questions, and ultimately more problems. How and why do customers choose ? Is price important to them? How do convenience, reliability and risk feature ? Where do buying decisions happen ? What is it that we (as planning authorities) can do differently to other sorts of organisation ?

The two problems illustrate how it is easy to bake assumptions in at the outset that restrict creative responses further down the line. It’s not natural for planners to think like marketers, and probably most would recoil from thinking about how we might create barriers to entry for the private sector. But if we don’t frame the problem creatively we will just unthinkingly go into another round of cost-cutting rather than making the most of the brainpower and talent we have in councils.


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