If you’re a knowledge worker, it’s likely you spend your days jumping in and out of meetings, putting out fires and solving important problems, all in pursuit of company goals and expectations.

There’s a lot at stake:

  • Will our efforts drive company growth?
  • Will our plans increase customer acquisition?
  • Do we understand what it takes to build retention?

To succeed, we need solid understanding of the tasks at hand, clear vision of why they matter, and a means to prioritize what’s truly important.

That’s no easy task—especially in highly interdependent, complex business environments with lots of problems to address every day.

But here’s the thing:

While we humans are really good at solving problems, we don’t seem to be especially adept at solving the right problems.

—which is a problem in and of itself.

Sobering Statistics

According to the Harvard Business Review, 85% of C-suite execs agreed or strongly agreed that their organizations are bad at problem diagnosis, and 87% agreed or strongly agreed that this flaw carries significant costs. (Check out this article: HBR, Are You Solving the Right Problems?)

The article states a classic example of chasing after the wrong thing:

People in an apartment building are complaining about the slow elevators. At first glance, this is a “speed” problem, so maybe the solution is stronger motors? Or better lifts? Anything that makes the elevator faster.

But dig deeper, and maybe speed isn’t the right problem to solve. Speed feels expensive, and maybe a little intractable. Maybe the “right” problem isn’t speed, but patience. Perhaps people don’t need a faster elevator, they need something to occupy them during the ride—like mirrors to look at themselves, so they don’t feel bored.

Houston, We Have a Problem (Spoiler alert: It’s Us)

As a facilitator, this “first glance” thing is an issue. It’s been my experience that people almost always jump right to solutions, based on their assumption that they understand the problem. But more often than not, their assumptions are wrong.

Now, this isn’t a character flaw; I don’t blame anyone when they start “solutioning” right out of the gate. I’ve come to understand and accept a simple truth: we humans are just wired this way.

You see, for thousands of years, our ancestors in the jungle had to make lightning-fast choices in order to survive. Berries on a bush? Eat them now. Stranger on the path? Get ready to fight. Tiger ahead? Run!

So, when we see a problem, our very first, instinctual response is to do something about it. Now! Our ability to make snap judgements and react instantly has served us well for millennia. But today’s jungle isn’t as simple as it once was, and our genes haven’t figured that out yet.

Taming Our Instant-Response Mechanisms

At Three Five Two, we’re very intentional about not solving things too quickly. We employ a highly facilitative approach that puts on the brakes so we can uncover the right problem to be solved first. We walk our clients (and ourselves) through a series of very intentional steps that keep us on track and surface our best thinking. 

First: Recognize that solutions don’t come first, but that they will show up, invited or not. When they do, put them off to the side (like on a flip chart) and ask them to wait a bit.

Second: Fully explore the context of “what’s going on.” Take your time. Unpack every detail. Get it on paper. Use some fun tools like mind maps, journey maps, or even just a slew of sticky-notes strewn across a wall. Don’t try to solve anything, just get it all out. (Here are just a few of the tools we use; try them out!)

Third: Step back, take a hard look and ask: what’s really going on here? What’s the core thing that needs solving? Then ask again. And again. Form as many hypotheses as possible. If you need to, use some more tools, like Five Whys or Fishbone Diagrams.

Fourth: Now you can assess your hypotheses with some important questions:

  • What are you most confident about?
  • What are you least confident about?
  • Who is this problem about?
  • Does it matter to our company? How?
  • What feels interesting?
  • What would be worth knowing more about?
  • And, especially, what seems like the foundation of everything else?

Answer that last question, and you’re likely looking at the REAL problem!

Now you can get to work on solving it. For that, we recommend a design-thinking approach. More on that in another post. 🙂

Now it’s time to do something about it. Formulate some solutions and go test them!


Rich Goidel is a strategist, facilitator and VP of Innovation at 352. He’s passionate about helping smart people work together to achieve great things, engaging teams to deliver excellence through design thinking and visual practices on flip charts, white boards and any medium that gets what’s in peoples heads, out.