The Importance of Understanding a Problem Before Solving It

16 June 2023
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In the days before road maps, I used to sit in the back of our old Ford Fiesta with headphones on to avoid hearing my dad shout at my mother whenever we got lost on holiday in Italy.

Of course, my mother had nothing to do with his poor sense of direction.

Thirty years later, I find myself again in the back, this time in a chair at work during our usual Monday afternoon meeting, and instead of headphones, I am writing on my laptop.

All the professors are gathered in the same room, listening intently to our boss as the meeting begins.

After a few minutes, the search for quick solutions is again on.

I keep quiet but can’t stop wondering; why we love solutions so much.

Is it that they give us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction?

Or do we feel we’ve achieved something meaningful and worthwhile when solving a problem?

As I write down my questions on my laptop, I come up with one more possible limiting belief to explore:

Could it be that we perceive solutions as leading to more opportunities and possibilities – not that we have solved the problem or made progress, just that we feel we are making progress?

A kind of pseudo-process of sorts?

Or do we feel we discover new avenues when solving one problem?

One thing is certain, asking questions disrupts the status quo and forces us to reevaluate our current way of doing things.

Years of education can be challenged with one simple question, and most people can’t handle the discomfort, so they keep following the same map without knowing where they are.

After five years of groundhog day at our Monday meetings, I haven’t seen much change in our results in how we deal with students.

The reason is simple: we must first understand where we are to change something.

But, just like my father didn’t know where he was on our trips to Italy, we are too embarrassed to admit we are lost.

Here we are, a group of adults with years of education, afraid to face the uncertainty of questions. So we put out one fire after another and call it progress, not knowing that we are the gasoline.

Understanding – the first step in making progress

A mountain of research shows that understanding a problem before attempting to solve it is critical to successful problem-solving.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that participants who spent more time understanding a problem before attempting to solve it were more likely to arrive at the correct solution. Those who immediately started trying to solve the problem without first taking the time to understand it were less likely to find the correct solution.

Another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who took a more thorough approach to understanding a problem before trying to solve it were more likely to be successful in their problem-solving efforts.

Many experts in various fields emphasize the importance of understanding a problem before trying to solve it.

They propose thoroughly understanding the problem is more important than rushing to find a solution.

I suggested this outrageous approach in a couple of meetings when I started teaching five years ago, but it was too thought-provoking at the time.

Sometimes the cause of us jumping to solutions is caused by external pressure to follow the traditional waterfall process or insufficient support for the necessary cultural transition we need to make to solve the problems we face.

Yes, external pressures and insufficient support can create a sense of urgency or a desire to demonstrate progress by quickly arriving at a solution, and a lack of support for necessary cultural transitions can hinder the adoption of a more comprehensive problem-solving approach.

Cultural transitions may involve shifting mindsets, embracing new methodologies or frameworks, and creating an environment encouraging curiosity, questioning, and exploration.

Still, I believe that there is more that we need to understand if we are going to make any progress.

The Temptation to Jump Straight to Solutions

While jumping straight to finding a solution may be tempting, fully understanding a problem is crucial for successful problem-solving.

To solve a problem, we must understand not only the problem itself but also that the root cause often lies within ourselves and those around us. More precisely, our limiting beliefs are the source of the problem, not the problem itself.

This requires us to step back, examine the problem from different angles, and gather information, starting with our biases.

We can explore potential solutions once we recognize that our biased thinking contributes to the problem. The first solution we come up with is usually the most biased one.

By taking the time to understand why we think the way we do, we are able to explore multiple solutions fully and increase our chances of finding an effective solution that addresses the root cause of the problem.

Disrupting the Status Quo with Questions

Asking incisive questions is a powerful tool that allows us to challenge the status quo and invite new perspectives.

When we let go of prestige and roles and question our current way of doing things, we can evaluate if there are better ways to approach a situation.

Asking one simple but empowering question can result in new and innovative solutions.

Yes, questions can cause discomfort by forcing us to confront the possibility that our solution may not be the best. After all, who likes to be wrong?

We don’t need more solutions but more courage to embrace discomfort and be open to change instead of accumulating more solutions.

Many great inventions and breakthroughs have come from someone brave enough to ask questions.

In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick made one of the most important discoveries in the field of biology. By asking a simple question–what does the structure of DNA look like?–they discovered the double helix structure of DNA.

Similarly, in the late 1800s, Thomas Edison asked a simple question–how can we create light without flames? This question led to the invention of the electric light bulb. One question led to a revolution in how we live and work.

In the 1960s, a group of researchers at Xerox asked a simple question–how can we make it easier to share information between computers? This question led to the invention of the graphical user interface (GUI), now the standard for computer interfaces.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. After his liberation from the concentration camps, Frankl reflected deeply on his experiences and sought to understand the human condition.

He was particularly interested in the question of what happens between stimulus and response. This question led him to write Man’s Search for Meaning and to develop a unique approach to psychotherapy called logotherapy.

Logotherapy has helped millions of people discover their need for meaning and purpose and still lives on today.

Asking questions is crucial if we are to challenge the status quo. It’s the only way we can create to positive change.

Taking the time to ask for directions

As we reflect on our problem-solving efforts, we can see that our tendency to identify solutions quickly has both benefits and drawbacks.

Jumping to solve a problem might feel like we are moving forward and taking action, but more often than not, it leads to hasty decisions and mistakes.

What if we took a step back and looked at our solution’s possible options and consequences before deciding to jump to solving the problem?

What becomes possible when we ask more questions and seek input and feedback from others?

What questions could offer new insights and alternative approaches?

Taking the time to ask for “directions” can help us see more angles and involve others in the problem-solving process, increasing our chances of solving the problem and helping us avoid potential pitfalls.

Not understanding a problem before attempting to solve it can negatively affect problem-solving efforts.

Some of these effects include:

  • Solutions that only address the surface-level symptoms of a problem rather than the root cause
  • Unintended consequences or negative side effects of the solution
  • Wasted time and resources on solutions that do not actually solve the problem
  • Frustration and discouragement among those attempting to solve the problem lead to decreased motivation and productivity in the long run
  • Miscommunication and confusion can arise among team members or, in the case of students, as everyone may have a different understanding of the problem and potential solutions

The Process of Finding Answers

Finding answers is a process that involves several steps. This process is not always straightforward and requires a certain level of patience and persistence.

Step 1: Defining the Problem before jumping to solutions

To find answers, it is important first to define the problem. This involves identifying what the problem is and what needs to be solved. It is important to take the time to fully understand the problem before attempting to find a solution. This means examining the problem from different angles and gathering information from various sources.

Step 2: Do Your Research

Once the problem has been defined, the next step is to conduct research. This involves gathering as much information as possible about the problem, potential solutions, and other relevant factors affecting the problem-solving process. Research can involve reading articles, searching the internet, conducting experiments, and consulting with experts.

Step 3: Brainstorm

After conducting research, the next step is to brainstorm potential solutions. This involves generating as many ideas as possible without evaluating them.

The goal is to generate a wide range of questions that stimulate ideas that can be evaluated later.

Step 4: Evaluation

Once potential solutions have been generated, the next step is to evaluate them.

Examine each potential solution in detail and assess its feasibility, effectiveness, and drawbacks.

In this stage, we test potential solutions to see how they work in practice, and we call it what it is; a test period.

Step 5: Implementation

After a solution has been identified and evaluated, it is implemented. In this stage, we put the solution into practice, monitor its effectiveness, and adjust or modify it as needed.

Step 6: Reflection

The final step in the process of finding answers is reflection.

In this stage, we look back at the problem-solving process and evaluate what worked well and what could be improved upon when confronted with new challenges.

The process of reflection is crucial because it is in this phase that we learn from any mistakes or challenges we encounter and build a culture of meaningful questioning.

Finding a solution is easy, but asking questions is not always easy. One needs a certain amount of patience and perseverance.

It is important to take the time to fully understand the problem, the questions we asked to solve it, and the outcome.

Empowering Questions

  1. Why do I assume that finding a solution is more important than understanding the problem?
  2. What limiting beliefs do I hold that make me believe that the first solution I come up with is the best one?
  3. How does focusing solely on finding a solution instead of understanding the problem limit my ability to identify its root causes?

Actionable Insights

Sometimes when faced with a problem, it can be tempting to immediately jump into solving it. I am certainly guilty of doing that on more than one occasion.

Rushing to find a solution without fully understanding the problem often leads to hasty decisions and mistakes.

Finding answers may involve several iterations before a satisfactory solution is identified.

There is great value in asking powerful questions – it is the best teacher of perseverance in the face of challenges and setbacks.

By practicing asking questions, we are able to gain a deeper understanding of the problem and improve our ability to identify root causes. This helps us build problem-solving skills for the future rather than just treating symptoms.

Solving problems cannot be done at the level they were created but requires cultural transitions that involve changing mindsets and adopting new methodologies or frameworks.

Creating an environment that encourages curiosity, questioning, and exploration always starts with powerful questions. More often than not, the problem is not a problem but an unidentified or unmet need.

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