What's Your REAL problem??


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When was the last time you spent excessive time and money solving a problem only to discover the problem you thought you had wasn't really the problem at all?

Recognizing the real problem is crucial to any problem-solving venture. John Dewey said, “A problem is half solved if it is properly stated. " Below are two simple tools that can help you figure out the real problem behind the problem. One tool, ask “Why" questions and a second tool, “change the Action Verb. "

Ask Why?

Simply ask the question, Why? A man bought a pair of tan suede leather shoes. About a week after he bought the shoes, he was in the grocery store reaching to a top shelf for a container of cooking oil. Unfortunately, the screw-top of the oil bottle was loose and when tipped a big, fat drop of oil fell right on the suede of the man's shoes. There, smack in the middle of the tan suede was a dark circle of oil about the size of a quarter. The man was beside himself because his new shoes were ruined. Before he tossed the pair, however, he would try to remove the stain. He tried dishwashing and dishwasher soap, bath soap, laundry detergent, baking soda as well as various blends. The stain would not budge. The question, “Why do you want the stain out?" was asked. Ah, suddenly there were new possibilities. The reality was that the stain itself was not a problem. The fact that the shoes were not a consistent color was the problem. “How to make the shoes a consistent color" deserved attention. Quickly, there was an idea to put oil on the rest of the suede so the shoes would be one consistent color. Oil made especially for shoes was purchased and applied. It worked! The shoes were a little darker than previous but all one consistent color. The real problem was solved with minimal cost and minimal effort. The suede shoes are a good example of how considering why a “problem" exists may lead to an underlying issue and, in turn, shine a new light on additional opportunities for solutions.

Change the verb

When considering problem solutions try changing the action verb. Changing the verb may open the statement up to a broader interpretation, resulting in a greater array of solutions. For example, I woke one recent morning and found my way to the kitchen in search of my usual fried egg white omelet. Every morning of a good day I have a fried egg white omelet. I cracked the eggs, separated out the yolks, and put the whites in a pan. The pan went to the gas stove top. I turned the knob but was bewildered by the fact that no fire started. Then I saw it, a gas truck was parked in the alley behind my house. I spoke to the driver who informed me that a city worker had penetrated the gas line while digging. It would be hours before the gas could be restored. What was I to do? My fried egg whites were in jeopardy; my “good" day was at stake. I quickly looked around the room to see what other resources were available to fry my egg whites. I thought, “the coffee maker has a heating element. " I could put the pan of egg whites on the coffee-maker. Unfortunately, the element did not get hot enough to fry the eggs. I looked around again. I spied a popcorn popper. I could use the bottom of the popper, put the eggs directly on the element and the eggs might fry. Success! The eggs did fry, the consistency was a little unusual and they did taste somewhat corny but they fried!

I was so excited about my creative problem solving skills. When my husband came home that evening I said, “Guess what I did today!" I eagerly told him of my fried egg dilemma and how I tried the coffee maker and the popcorn popper and ultimately was able to eat my fried eggs. He looked at me with a confused expression. Finally he spoke, “Why didn't you just use the microwave?"

What happened to my great plan? I was so focused on the idea of “frying" the eggs that I completely overlooked my real purpose which was to “heat" the eggs. If I had changed the action verb from “fry" to “heat" I would have immediately went to the microwave.

Two simple tools, 1) Ask “Why" and 2) Change the Action Verb can save much time and effort when problem solving.

Maybe when on your next problem solving mission you should also wear suede shoes while eating an egg white omelet…. . can't hurt.

Copyright 2005. Toni McNutt. All rights reserved

This article may be freely distributed and reprinted as long as the author's information and web link are included at the bottom of the article.

Authored by:
Toni S. McNutt, Ph. D.
Synapse Decisions

Toni McNutt is a facilitator, trainer and consultant who helps her clients empower a more productive staff better able to achieve competitive innovation in a dynamic environment.


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