Focus on core problems

Focusing on the problem is something that I continually come back to and remind myself of. There are so many instances that I hear people where they understand a solution and are determined to bend the world to their view of the solution rather than focusing on the problem. Staying in the problem space for a little longer and really exploring and understanding the problem(s) is really valuable, rather than prematurely converging on solutions.

One of the most common things I’m hearing nowadays in technology is around the use of large frameworks. For example, I’ve often heard things like “just install SAFe, SAFe has this feature so you just need to apply it”. Thanks, but I don’t think that’s very good advice. I don’t want to install a large framework to solve my immediate problem. Even if you’ve already bitten the bullet and installed SAFe, do you really think your context always requires the “just follow this recipe” approach? Do you think the framers of SAFe understood your customers and your business when they came up with the framework? Should you really use a “one size fits all” approach? No, this is a solution – let’s spend some more time in the problem space.

Another space I think about this is in sales. I’ve come to learn over the years that sales is about listening to customers and really understanding their problem and their context. Staying in the problem space, listening and asking probing questions only when required is really important. Your customer will tell you about their key problems if you let them and help them with a little bit of guidance. My sales coach has a wonderful article about this entitled “Shut up! Let your customers speak and win more sales“.

Something that I really like in the agile space is the work done by Neil Killick – particularly around slicing. Again, he encourages folks not to converge into the solution space too early. In his article “The essence of story slicing in an agile environment” Neil asks the question of “What are some options for delivering value to a customer as soon as possible”. I like that for a number of reasons – one is that he’s talking about options – again not yet converging, but exploring the problem space. I’ve talked about options thinking in a number of my blog posts as well. He also uses simple techniques for doing this – you just need a basic understanding of English (or whatever language your customer uses!) and you can start to explore the problem space. His focus on customers and timeliness is also another great aspect. He stays in the problem space for some time, finally choosing an option on which to focus, then, and only then, starting to think about solutions.

I also like Kanban’s approach to this. One of the early steps in STATIK (Systems Thinking Approach to Introducing Kanban) is to understand points of dissatisfaction. Both from a team perspective as well as a customer perspective. This is about understanding the core problems before installing a solution. Stay in this space for a little while – explore it, listen and ask those poignant questions. What’s even more powerful is that this is not the end of the process. Once you’ve implemented the solution to those problems, new problems will surface. Iterating through the process regularly will ensure you’re continually focusing on key problems. If you want to learn more about this, come along to my Kanban System Design course and learn all about it.

The consequence of not doing this can be quite grave. You could tank on that sales call, even lose the potential customer. You could waste your time installing a solution but realise that you haven’t solved your problem. Time is the one thing you can’t buy more of, so you need to use it wisely as there are opportunity costs of focusing on the wrong thing. There are not only customer impacts, but there are potentially team impacts. Wasting your team members time can be frustrating – usually the best folks will tend to leave and find somewhere else where they can align better to their customer’s purpose and see the fruits of the labour valuably impacting peoples lives.

So please, don’t prematurely converge on solutions. It can be hard, but stay in the problem space for a little longer. Listen, question, understand. Focus on the core problems and win!

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