What's the Problem?

To make a bigger difference, find the right problem.

People have opinions. We like to question things, whether we say it out loud, under our breaths, or keep it bottled up inside. It can be harder to know where opinions come from, or where they might lead.


In our minds, we employ a version of the scientific method: We observe, ask questions, create a theory. We’re not always rigorous about it. The data aren’t incomplete and we don’t always test our hypothesis. We don’t reflect on the evidence. Suspicion about motives leads to conspiracy theories and confirmation bias deepens our resolve. We believe what we believe, and know what we know. If we don’t look up, we can find ourselves in a ditch or at least in a rut. We may not even recognize where we are or how we got there.

The information age promises to be an oracle but risks being a Pandora’s box. In The Death of Expertise, author Tom Nichols suggests that we are “witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” Experts can be wrong, but they recognize that trial and error is how we learn. Professionals value progress over perfection. All this was true even before the social media echo chamber, which makes it even harder to understand what’s going on.

Organizations are groups of people. Subject to groupthink, groups have opinions, too.


Companies that feel stuck are most often bound by opinions. Collectively, companies, departments, and work teams have a way of doing things, a culture, a bias. Facts shape team understanding, but a sea of information can make it hard to separate signals from the noise. Business choices should not be personal opinions. Charged with defining a strategy, leaders need to be more scientific with their method. Often, the answer lies with asking the right questions and solving the right problem.

Without a rigorous way to solve problems, opinions take over. People jump to conclusions. Too often, problems are misdiagnosed, leading to what cognitive scientists call a fundamental attribution error – solving the wrong problem. Albert Einstein famously said that “if I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Einstein knew that asking the right question would lead to the best answer. It’s why problem diagnostics have become an essential part of innovation practice.

Problem framing often involves seeking root motives and causes. Any product or service fulfills a basic need but also a deeper one. Why do you buy food? Sure, you’re hungry, but it’s also because you don’t want to starve. You don’t want to starve because you want to be healthy, perhaps because you must take care of your family. Because you love your family and you’re seeking stability, happiness, and peace. This line of questioning, sometimes known as the Five Whys, is an abstraction ladder. Moving up and down an abstraction ladder can help teams better understand the problem space and how to create more customer value. You don’t need to consider self-actualization every time you go to the grocery store, but identifying deeper customer needs can help teams solve better problems.


We think about problem abstraction on at least three levels - philosophy, principle, and practice. In order to change, practitioners need to understand that best practices may need to give way to new practices. Practice areas should be governed by principles and based on a philosophy. A strong foundation and connecting the dots will make for a more robust and adaptive organization.

You don’t need to be Einstein to see that solving better problems yields better solutions. Problem discovery may sound like a waste of time for those with strongly-held opinions, but as Nichols writes, “when life and death are involved, it’s a lot less funny.” Expertise is relative, but seek to listen and learn. As Ronald Reagan said regarding Russian containment, ironically using the Russian proverb doveryai, no proveryai, “trust, but verify.”

To make a bigger difference, find the right problem. Work to get out of your normal opinions, bias, and culture. Follow a process and look for guides. Your opinion is vital, but you need to know where you are and how you got there in order to map where you’re going.

Want to discuss?

Join Kevin Budelmann and Jake Himmelspach for Office Hours—a live webinar on Thursday, December 18th at 12 pm EST to explore this topic through further conversation.

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