Define the Problem Before Solving It

September 5, 2023

By Dave Bushy, PCC

We all see ourselves as seeking solutions in our personal and professional lives, yet so often we move forward with one significant handicap: We fail to define the problem first.

In my early professional days, I often wrote business cases.  I framed them much like the military staff studies I learned as a young U.S. Army Officer.   The rubric was simple.  It began with:

  1. What is the challenge or problem you are facing?

How often have you been in staff meetings where this question was not asked?   Executives often see themselves as problem-solvers, yet hamstring themselves by springing into action before spending time answering the most significant question or entry point into a discussion. 

Working with coaching clients, I often ask, “What problem are you really solving?”  

When I hear answers that involve solutions, I invite them into the world of mathematics.  A few of us love algebra – some of us, not so much.  In our daily business lives, though, we might find it useful to use some algebraic problem-solving strategies.

A simple problem-solving strategy in algebra begins with some simple steps.  High up on the list are:

  • Identify what you are looking for
  • Name what you are looking for

When I challenge executive clients to do “algebra” like this, it can be liberating.  They realize that the most important part of any equation is knowing what they are solving for before beginning work.  They can then spend their valuable time with colleagues and teams, ensuring that the important challenges are identified and crystalized for action. 

I remember senior meetings at a previous company involved in “Return to Profitability” (RTP) sessions, where one group of executives would hunker down and demand, “Cut headcount,” while others would say, “Increase marketing,” and others would want to just “Reduce costs.”  Sometimes cooler heads would prevail with someone pointing out that cashflow was the real issue, but oftentimes we would appear to be throwing linguini at a wall in hopes of redecorating the kitchen.  We would fail to identify the challenge that we were facing and thus diluting our energy by seeking a myriad of solutions, often at random.

I suppose that’s where I learned that there was a better way – again, by going back to my military roots.

Once you’ve carefully and thoughtfully defined the challenge and gained a shared understanding by the team, then you can begin the next steps:

2. What are the facts bearing on the problem?

3. Discuss those facts and the situation.

4. What are the options you have?

5. Based on items one through four, above, what is your recommendation?

I hope you can all try what I learned so long ago.  It serves my clients and I know it can serve you!

Dave Bushy of Boston Executive Coaches – – is a an ICF-certified coach who was trained at the Gestalt International Study Center (GISC).  Dave is a former U.S. Army officer and senior airline executive who works with leaders throughout the world.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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