A recurring theme has been going around in my head lately and this has been reinforced on two separate occasions this last few days. This is about reaching conclusions about a solution before identifying the problem.

The first occasion that cropped up lately for me was in an article in the Observer on Sunday 20 March 2011, written by Neal Ascherson, questioning whether we are addressing the right problems in reaching solutions, and quoting examples in both Libya and Japan.  In this he also quotes someone he met who said that “As an engineer, I can tell you the root of all human mistakes. It’s people putting things right, before they have finished finding out whats wrong”

The other occasion was a more personal situation in which I had needed to request an intervention from a contractor to see what was causing a blockage at home. What was interesting is that he assumed what the problem was and immediately starting ‘solving’ it. The problem did not go away and he had to be called back in. This time I had to insist that the problem needed more  investigating before assuming the solution. We got there finally. Although it cost two visits and more money.

Both of these examples underline for me, as in the quote earlier, that we all too often leap to a conclusion based on our own perception and assumptions, and end up solving the wrong problem, which in its turn at best continues the problem, at worst intensifies the situation so the problem gets worse.

My solution to this? Well its an approach used in creative problem solving, that is taking time to ensure that the problem is fully understood before attempting to even suggest solutions.

Various techniques can help here, although I favour using imagery and mapping of a problem which can often unlock a broader perception and offer different ways of seeing the problem before moving to possible solutions. One my favourite techniques here would be drawing a rich picture of the problem which contains all the elements of the situation. Doing this collaboratively and listening to co-workers also working on the same problem can offer a rich way of gaining fresh perception and understanding.

What techniques have you used to explore problems before reaching for solutions?