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The Problem Solving Dilemma

A dilemma suggests a choice between two or more equally undesirable alternatives. It’s a frequent managerial situation where a decision, and ultimately trade offs must be made to solve a problem. The real problem is not the lack of attractive alternatives, but a lack of understanding of the problem itself.

Problem understanding is a far more valuable skill than problem solving. A question well asked is half answered. A problem inaccurately stated is a dilemma. If the possible solutions present unattractive alternatives, the problem has not been explored deeply enough.

A simple example: A business owner asks “How can I sell my business at a profit?”

“How” is a good way to phrase a question. It anticipates there will be more than one alternative.

But, rather than focus on the solution, let’s probe the problem. Why does the owner want to sell the business? So she can move to Hawaii. Why Hawaii? Because she feels creative and relaxed in that environment? The questioning could and should continue in multiple directions to understand the real problem to be solved. In this example, the solution may not be how to sell the business, but how to make the business portable? Move the business to Hawaii. Reestablish a clientele. Build new business connections and then sell the business, all the while fulfilling the goal of living in Hawaii.

That’s one solution. Maybe a good one. But why settle so quickly. Decisions deserve deeper and broader consideration. We like to solve problems quickly. It’s part of our multitasking mentality. A thorough analysis of the problem may produce a solution that solves more than one issue. Or, it may resolve the issue fully instead of creating another problem downstream. Slowing down the process of decision making can actually accelerate achievement of an effective and lasting solution.

In essence, problem understanding is like seeking the advice of someone else. An objective opinion will usually offer a different perspective by interpreting the problem through an alternative set of filters. One additional tactic: Seek opinions from people with no connection to the problem – emotionally, culturally, socially, etc. Seek opinions from non subject matter experts. This is another form of lateral thinking to achieve innovative, game-changing solutions. Push the boundaries out far enough and the possible solutions can become very interesting. Some may be totally inappropriate. But, they can trigger more realistic solutions that are still far beyond the boundaries of the self-imposed assumptions, patterns and habits that define your dilemma. The consequences of a decision can last a long time. Unless you explore the question and project the impact of your solution through multiple scenarios, you cannot make a responsible decision.   

The Constitution of the Iriquois Nations is credited for seeing the imact of the solution as it unfolds seven generations in the future. That range of thinking holds many possibilities.

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