The One Question You Must Ask to Solve Any Problem (It’s Also the Most Underrated Management Skill)

So much of success involves being able to articulate how you are trying to be successful. Along those lines, in an article for Inc., Theodore Kinni examines some thoughts by Sloan Management Review authors on the subject of formulating problem statements. Asking “What problem am I trying to solve?” and giving a darn good answer is the best way to get a solution started on the right foot. Kinni further interviews Sloan author Nelson Repenning on this concept.

No Problem, No Solution

Repenning believes that effective problem statements can pierce through business as usual to allow for innovation. Problem statements go underused in business though, and it is likely because people do not think they need them. Instead, they act on instinct according to what they think the problem is. When people operate like this, they might stop just short of more innovative solutions.

A really good problem statement has three elements. It must have a clear “desired state,” a clear current state, and a clear gap between the two. Some degree of quantification is important. On that note, Repenning shares this about the most common mistakes that occur with problem statements:

By far, the biggest mistake is formulating a problem statement that is a solution in disguise. You must separate the problem from the potential solution, which may or may not be right. A clear problem statement gives you and your team the opportunity to evaluate all the solutions and pick the best one. …

[Another] mistake is a lack of quantification. A troublesome problem statement says, “The morale around here is bad.” A clear one says, “We want our net promoter score to be X and now it’s Y, and here’s the gap between them.”

You can view the full interview here:

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