How to Problem-Find Before You Problem-Solve

Uncovering the root causes.

July 31, 2023
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Problem-finding must come before problem-solving. Otherwise, we might be solving the wrong problem.

How do you identify the critical problem to solve?

Have you ever “fixed” something that ended up not being broken? Sometimes our solutions fail because we are solving the wrong problem, and we can avoid this situation by engaging in problem-finding before we engage in problem-solving.

Problem-finding must come before problem-solving. Otherwise, we might be solving the wrong problem.

This article will teach you three strategies that you or your team can use for problem-finding.

  1. The 5 Whys 
  2. The 80/20 Rule
  3. Story Telling
Does life ever feel like a hack rather than on purpose?

How to use the 5-whys to uncover root causes

This simple habit delivers a significant impact. Here's how it works. You ask "Why?" 5 times. It's that simple.

Let's walk through an example. Imagine a conversation between a father and son.

Dad: Why are you home in the middle of the day?

Kid: Dad, I can't go to class.

Dad: Why?

Kid: The car won't start

Dad: Why?

Kid: The battery is dead

Dad: Why is the battery dead?

Kid: It's been an issue; I think the alternator isn't working.

Dad: Why do you think that?

Kid: It's one of the error codes on the dashboard.

The key is to move past symptoms (car won’t start) to causal factors (bad alternator, or maybe no maintenance).

Suppose the dad stopped after even the third why. He'd be replacing a battery that would soon be dead. You can imagine additional questions emerging after this dialogue about underlying issues like regular maintenance.

Have you ever “fixed” something that ended up not being broken? Sometimes our solutions fail because we are solving the wrong problem.

Five isn't a magical number, but it's usually enough to get to underlying causes and not so many that you start to frustrate people. The key is to move past symptoms to causal factors.

I don't feel like every question has to be, "Why?" Asking "How? When? What? or Where?" can also be helpful, but "Why?" seems to be the most effective at getting to the cause of things.

I will use the 5-Whys in one of two ways:

  1. I tell everyone I'm using it to facilitate a discussion challenging the team to keep digging deeper.
  2. I can also use it subtly in a conversation by keeping a curious posture and continuing to ask questions.
The key is to move past symptoms to causal factors.

This habit is a great one to teach your team, and it will empower each member to do the discovery work necessary for leadership.

Reflection Questions:

  1. When do you not ask why and treat a symptom rather than a cause?
  2. When will you apply the 5-Whys?

‍Using the 80/20 rule to problem-find

The 80/20 rule (or Pareto Principle) tells us that 80% of output typically comes from 20% of the input. Here are some common examples:

  • In a group project, 20% of the people do 80% of the work.
  • 80% of a company’s revenue comes from 20% of the company’s products.
  • 20% of customer issues generate 80% of the complaints.

Once you understand the 80/20 rule, you’ll begin to see it all over. There are two big ideas here I want you to see.

  1. Not all problems or causes are equally important, and some have much more impact than others. 
  2. There may not be one singular root cause. Instead, it might be a cluster of reasons that have an outsized influence.
Knowing that the 80/20 rule exists is an essential concept to help you focus and prioritize, but to do that, you need to find that 20%

That second point is crucial because I’ve seen myself and others get stuck trying to find the root cause. I may have already identified multiple problems that would have had a tremendous impact if fixed. But I was convinced there was one singular underlying cause to solve them all, which usually isn’t the case.

So about now, you may be thinking, “This is great, but how do I identify that 20 percent?” Knowing that the 80/20 rule exists is an essential concept to help you focus and prioritize, but to do that, you need to find that 20%. 

Finding the 20 of the 80/20 begins with gathering information

We start by collecting data that we can make visible and organize to identify the impactful 20%.  You probably have access to a lot of information you need, but it may require some work to get it together. 

Here are three places to look for information that will lead you to find the 20 of your 80/20.

  1. Reviews. Are you holding regular reviews for yourself or 1on1s with your direct reports? Both can be rich sources of information about how things have been going over time.
  2. Interviews. The core problems may be in an unfamiliar area, and interviews can help you learn from the experience of others. When conducting interviews, you can leverage the techniques of “5-Whys” and “Tell me a story” mentioned in this article.
  3. Data you already have. Do you have staff surveys or customer surveys? Perhaps you have a list of customer complaints or product feature requests. They can be rich pockets of insight.

Ok, now you’ve gathered a lot of information, and it will need some structuring to bring out the root causes.

You need to organize the information gathered to identify the 20 of your 80/20

It can be pretty overwhelming to have a big data pool and not be sure where to start. I’ll briefly introduce two strategies I like to organize a data set.

Affinity diagraming is a simple but powerful process to help you identify themes.

Oxford defines affinity as a similarity of characteristics suggesting a relationship. So in affinity diagraming, we are organizing information based on similar characteristics.

Sticky notes on a whiteboard is my preferred context for affinity diagramming. If you’re on a distributed team, there are some great online whiteboard tools. Let’s walk through the simple steps to create an affinity diagram. 

  1. Start by getting all the data pieces onto individual sticky notes. These can be on the board or on a table nearby. 
  2. Have the team read over the board silently first
  3. As people see commonalities, have them call them out.
  4. Arrange the notes in clusters or columns 
  5. As groups form, use a sticky note of a different color to give a name to the group
  6. As a team, discuss observations from the affinity diagram

Affinity diagramming creates new visibility for a broad set of data. It can be a helpful tool for you and your team to identify the 20% that will make a big difference.

Process mapping lets you see from a new perspective

When a team asks me for help solving a problem, one place I like to begin is mapping the process. Most often, no one person knows the whole process. Team members are usually surprised by how much they don’t know. Seeing it all together in one place provides the visibility needed for insight. 

Process mapping uses specific shapes to map out all the steps from beginning to end. They can be simple or complicated. You can organize them around stages or people. There is a lot of flexibility, and how you do it depends on your context. 

Creately has a great guide if you want to learn the basics of building a process map. Process mapping is a helpful tool to bring visibility, and seeing the whole process often allows you to identify the fundamental problems that have the most impact.

Use storytelling to identify the problem that needs to be solved

Problem-finding doesn’t have to be a formal process. It can be very conversational. When I do a design audit of a department, team or process, I begin with interviews. I’ll interview people from different roles and relationships and just ask them to describe to me how this works. 

Teach this to me like I was a new hire.

To take a genuine learners approach, you have to set aside what you think you already know about how things work. This approach can be hard for both you and the person you are interviewing. Phrases like, “teach this to me like I was a new hire” can help frame the conversation. 

This perspective is one of the reasons why bringing in an outside consultant can be so impactful. They don’t already know how the process works and can ask the “dumb” questions. Sometimes I’ll ask a question everyone in the room feels like they already know the answer to, but when I ask, they all have a different reply. This phenomenon usually leads to some good discussion. 

You can implement the 5-whys in these interviews, but you really want to go beyond that and use all the questions words of who, what, where, when, how… Here are a few things to look for in your interviews:

  • Hacks. Are people having to hack the prescribed system, or even break the rules, to get their job done. There are probably some underlying problems to uncover.
  • Confusion. How often do you get the answer, “I don’t know,” when asking how something works?
  • Discrepancy. Do different people give different answers to the same question?
  • Redundancy. Is the same work being done by multiple people? Dig in to see why this is happening.
  • Delays. Are there unnecessary delays in the current system? Look to see what is causing these.

I usually take long-form notes and record my interview if possible. Shortly after an interview, I will process my notes, capturing insights on post-its. I’ll then use a process like affinity diagramming to organize them and identify root causes.

It’s easy to feel stuck or have an obstacle and not be sure how to begin to overcome it. I can lead your team through workshops for discovery, ideation, problem-solving, and solution testing.

Related Guides

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Action Plan

We covered a lot in this article, and you don’t have to apply all of it at once. Here are three options to start problem-finding.

  1. When a problem is surfaced in a team meeting, facilitate the 5-whys to see if you can identify the root cause.
  2. Schedule a time with your team to map out the core process for your team to deliver value, whether that is a product or service.
  3. Each month, choose a step in your process map and interview team members asking them to teach it to you like you were a new hire. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Design Thinking?

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves a deep understanding of user needs and experiences to create innovative solutions. It is a human-centered methodology that seeks to empathize with users, define their problems, ideate potential solutions, prototype and test those solutions, and iterate based on feedback.

Design thinking emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and experimentation, and it can be applied to a wide range of challenges, from product design and development to service design and organizational change. It involves creating a culture of continuous learning and improvement, where failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Some key principles of design thinking include:

  1. Empathy: Design thinking starts with empathy for the user, seeking to understand their needs, motivations, and pain points through observation, interviews, and other research methods.
  2. Iteration: Design thinking is an iterative process, involving the creation and testing of prototypes to refine and improve solutions.
  3. Collaboration: Design thinking is a collaborative approach that involves bringing together diverse perspectives and skills to ideate and create solutions.
  4. Visualization: Design thinking often involves visualizing ideas and concepts through sketches, diagrams, and other visual representations.
  5. User-Centeredness: Design thinking prioritizes the needs and experiences of users, creating solutions that are tailored to their specific needs and preferences.

Overall, design thinking is a powerful approach to problem-solving that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and user-centeredness. It can help organizations develop innovative solutions to complex challenges while creating a culture of continuous improvement.

Learn more about design thinking.

What are the five steps of design thinking?

Design thinking typically involves the following five iterative steps:

  1. Empathize: This stage involves understanding the user's needs, desires, and challenges. Designers use empathy to put themselves in the user's shoes to gain a deep understanding of their experiences.
  2. Define: In this stage, designers synthesize their research findings and define the problem statement, which serves as a guiding principle throughout the rest of the process to ensure that solutions are focused on addressing the problem.
  3. Ideate: During the ideation phase, designers generate a wide range of ideas and potential solutions to the problem statement. Brainstorming, sketching, and other creative techniques are commonly used to help facilitate the generation of novel ideas.
  4. Prototype: In this phase, designers create a prototype of the best solution or solutions that emerged from the ideation stage. Prototypes can take many different forms, but they are typically visual representations that allow users to interact with the potential solution and provide feedback.
  5. Test: Finally, the designer tests the prototype with users, gathers feedback, and observes how the user interacts with the prototype. This feedback is then used to refine the prototype further, leading to an improved solution or even new ideas and further iterations of the design thinking process.

Overall, design thinking provides a structured approach to problem-solving that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and user-centeredness. It enables designers to develop innovative solutions that meet the needs of the users while also providing value to the organization.

Learn more about design thinking.

What are some of the best design thinking exercises?

There are many design thinking exercises that teams can use to generate creativity and innovation. Here are some examples:

  1. Empathy mapping: In this exercise, team members map out the user's experience and emotions to better understand their needs and pain points.
  2. Idea generation: One classic idea generation exercise is brainstorming, which involves generating as many ideas as possible without judgment or critique. Another popular exercise is "Crazy 8s," in which team members sketch eight ideas in eight minutes.
  3. Prototyping: Prototyping exercises include creating low-fidelity prototypes using materials like paper, cardboard, or clay to help teams visualize and test their ideas.
  4. Role-playing: Role-playing exercises help teams empathize with users by acting out different scenarios and personas.
  5. Collaborative sketching: This exercise involves having team members collaborate on a single sketch or drawing, each taking turns adding to the design.
  6. Mind-mapping: Mind-mapping exercises help to organize thoughts and ideas by visually representing the relationships between them.
  7. SCAMPER: This acronym stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse. This exercise is helpful in generating new ideas by encouraging teams to brainstorm ways to modify or adapt existing products or processes.

Overall, these exercises help teams to generate and test ideas, refine solutions, and work collaboratively towards creating innovative solutions that meet the needs of users.

Learn more about design thinking.

How to use Design Thinking

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Team Leadership

What is team leadership?

Team leadership is a management approach focused on leading and guiding a group of individuals working together towards a common goal. A team leader is responsible for providing direction, support, and guidance to the team members, while fostering a positive and productive work environment.

Team leadership involves setting clear goals and expectations for the team, communicating effectively, and building trust and relationships with team members. It also involves empowering team members to take ownership of their work and contribute their unique skills and perspectives to the team's success.

Some key characteristics of effective team leadership include:

  1. Communication: Team leaders communicate clearly and effectively with their team members, keeping them informed about goals, expectations, and progress.
  2. Vision and strategy: Effective team leaders have a clear vision for what they want to achieve and a strategy for how to get there, while also being flexible and adaptable when necessary.
  3. Empowerment: Good team leaders empower their team members to make decisions and take ownership of their work, while also providing support and guidance as needed.
  4. Trust-building: Team leaders build trust and strong relationships with their team members, creating a positive and productive work environment.
  5. Results-oriented: Finally, effective team leaders are results-oriented, focusing on achieving goals and driving performance while also valuing the well-being and development of their team members.

Overall, team leadership is a collaborative and empowering approach to management that values communication, trust-building, and results-driven performance.

Learn more about leadership.

What are the different styles of team leadership?

There are several different styles of team leadership, including:

  1. Democratic leadership: In this style, the leader encourages open communication and participation from all team members in decision-making processes.
  2. Autocratic leadership: This style involves the leader making decisions and taking control over the team's direction, often with little input from team members.
  3. Transformational leadership: This style focuses on inspiring and motivating team members to achieve their full potential, often by setting a clear vision and communicating goals effectively.
  4. Servant leadership: A servant leader prioritizes the needs of their team members, focusing on serving and empowering them to achieve their goals.
  5. Laissez-faire leadership: In this style, the leader provides minimal guidance or direction, allowing team members to take ownership of their work and make decisions independently.
  6. Transactional leadership: This style involves setting clear goals and expectations for team members and providing rewards or discipline based on performance.
  7. Situational leadership: This approach involves adapting one's leadership style to fit the specific situation or needs of the team at any given time.

Overall, each style of team leadership has its own strengths and weaknesses, and effective leaders may use a combination of different styles depending on the situation and the needs of their team.

Learn more about leadership.

What are the different skills required for team leadership?

There are several key skills required for effective team leadership, including:

  1. Clear: Team leaders must be to communicate effectively with their team members, setting clear expectations and goals, providing feedback, and keeping everyone informed about progress and changes.
  2. Active listening: Leaders need to be able to listen actively to their team members, hear their concerns, ideas, and suggestions, and work collaboratively to find solutions.
  3. Empathy: Good team leaders value empathy, recognizing and understanding the perspectives of their team members, and working to build trust and strong relationships
  4. Decision-making: Leaders must be able to make informed decisions based on available information and input from team members, while also being decisive when necessary.
  5. Problem-solving: Effective team leaders must be able to identify and solve problems that arise within the team, working collaboratively to find creative and effective solutions.
  6. Motivation and empowerment: Leaders must be able to motivate and empower their team members to take ownership of their work, overcome challenges, and achieve their full potential.
  7. Delegation and management: Team leaders must be able to delegate tasks effectively, manage resources and timelines, and oversee the work of the team to ensure quality and efficiency.

Overall, effective team leadership requires a combination of interpersonal, decision-making, and management skills, as well as the ability to inspire and empower team members to work collaboratively towards shared goals.

Learn more about leadership.

What is servant leadership?

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy and management style that emphasizes the importance of serving others first before considering one's own needs and desires. It's an approach to leadership that focuses on the well-being and growth of others, rather than solely on achieving organizational goals.

A servant leader prioritizes the needs of their followers or team members, providing them with support, guidance, and mentorship. They are committed to empowering their team members to reach their full potential and achieve their goals.

Some common characteristics of servant leaders include:

  1. Empathy: Servant leaders value empathy, placing themselves in the shoes of their followers to better understand their needs and motivations.
  2. Listening: They are active listeners, taking the time to listen to their followers' concerns, feedback, and ideas.
  3. Commitment to development: Servant leaders prioritize the growth and development of their followers, providing opportunities for learning and development.
  4. Humility: They recognize their own limitations and seek input from others to make informed decisions.
  5. Stewardship: Servant leaders view themselves as stewards of their organization, working to create a positive impact for all stakeholders.

Overall, servant leadership is about creating a supportive and empowering environment for others to thrive. By prioritizing the needs of their followers, a servant leader can inspire trust, loyalty, and commitment, ultimately leading to better outcomes for the organization as a whole.

Learn more about how to cultivate servant leadership.

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