The Systems View and Framing the Problem

The first task in any problem-solving effort is that of framing the problem. This is sometimes simplistically labeled “stating” the problem but that invites a limited view of what is involved up front. What is needed at the beginning is anything but limited.

It is hard to overstate the importance of understanding the problem to be solved before crafting candidate solutions. The initial phase holds a number of pitfalls and opportunities for error. Without a solid framework of understanding the solution set can be skewed or limited leading to a suboptimal solution.  Albert Einstein made his view of the importance of this framing quite clear when he observed, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”  [more]

There is a temptation to give the problem definition a cursory treatment. This is exacerbated by the common practice of accepting the customer’s presentation of the problem largely without question. Many procurements begin with a set of originating requirements that are already begging the solution. These are typically accepted uncritically and their limitations are adopted by the contractor.

In a quote widely attributed to Henry Ford the danger of stifled innovation is highlighted. Ford reputedly said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Although the authenticity of Ford as a source of this exact quote is a matter of some dispute, the idea of an artificially truncated solution set springing from an inadequately defined problem is real.

Whether or not Ford actually made the faster horses statement he was notorious for another omission in his problem framework. Even if he did not comment directly on the limitations inherent in his customers’ restrictive statement he was well known for eschewing the consideration of their wishes. Whatever limitations he avoided by sidestepping their constricted requirement statements he more than made up for by the gaps in his solution set created by ignoring the desires of those very customers.

Being trapped by limiting definitions of the problem and failing to adequately consider stakeholder needs are not the only ways in which the framing of the problem can go awry. There is also a tendency to move through the framing process to quickly driven by the temptation to jump to solution. This narrows the solution set by failing to develop all the alternatives in the haste to choose and move on. A graduate school supervisor displayed a cross-stitch piece in his office that summed it up well. “Look before you leap,” it read, “the conclusion you jump to could be your own.” In this case the “conclusion” to be avoided is once again the limitation imposed on the innovation possibilities lost in the rush.

While it would certainly be possible to continue to enumerate problems that stem from an inadequate framing process their solutions are related. Each of these problems is the result of a failure to adequately consider the problem space. Whether it’s the uncritical acceptance of a flawed problem statement, the failure to consider an aspect of the problem or the rush to solution the root of the problem is that the framing process has been shortchanged.

The solution to these problems lies in an improved framing process. Specifically it rests on taking a systems view of the problem space and the path to solution. There are three systems that are at issue in any problem-solving venture — the system that is the ultimate solution to the problem, the context in which the problem lived, and the system by which the problem is solved. The latter two — context and problem-solving systems — must be sound and fully implemented in order to get to the solution system.

In order to achieve a sound understanding of the difficulty to be addressed, it is necessary to understand the problem space or context system in which the problem lives and its solution will continue to reside. This means actually understanding the context — avoiding the quick statement that is often provided and including all the aspects of that system in the calculus. That only happens through a systems view that sees all that there is to see.

The tendency to rush to solution and the failure to thoroughly consider all aspects of the problem space are overcome with a problem solving system that is well conceived and set up to anticipate such pitfalls. This calls for intentional, system-level thought and design.

It is clear that the systems view is critical to the adequacy of the problem-framing that must underpin the design of a responsive and innovative solution. A failure to understand the problem-solution landscape limits the quality of the possible solutions. This is unavoidable absent the system view.

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