the effective problemsolver

TEP #004: How To Solve The Right Problem

This week’s tip: If you don’t have deep problem understanding, you’re likely solving the wrong problem.

I’m going to show you how to structure a complex social problem like homelessness.

In just three steps you’ll be able to apply Einstein’s insight: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Structuring is a way to gain deep understanding of a problem’s interrelated causes before acting. A little work beforehand means you won’t spend time fixing symptoms when you could be focusing on more fundamental causes.

Unfortunately, most people don’t even know what problem structuring is. As a result, they’re wasting time implementing the wrong solution.

Desire to implement the solution right now.

It’s so easy to focus on solutions rather than problem understanding. Here’s what people do:

  • Prioritize speed over direction. “We want action now!” All too often activists demand immediate action without considering unintended consequences. Defund the Police is Exhibit A.
  • Champion the ultimate solution. Instead exploring the many potential interventions and related trade-offs for an issue like homelessness, initiatives assume they already know the “right answer.” Housing First policy, for example, is touted by many as the only legitimate solution (even though it’s just one policy with major downsides).
  • Brainstorm endless answers. Most groups find it more fun to generate a long list of solutions rather than dive into the nitty gritty of statistics, research, and outcome data.

But, there’s another way!

Stop idolizing solutions and instead identify the real problem with these simple steps:

Step 1: Map the problem’s interrelated causes.

Complex problems have a large number of variables connected in complex ways. As variables change, the problem changes. It’s dynamic.

For example, homelessness is a web of causal factors. In the last few years, dramatic increases in opioid addiction, major labor market changes due to Covid, and rising housing costs have changed the size and nature of the problem. Yesterday’s solutions may no longer work.

To get a handle on a problem’s dynamics, create a simple causal map. Mapping first- and second-order effects, and the relationships between them, reveals feedback loops as well as the likely consequences of changing conditions.

Step 2: Define a problem statement.

Most people name a broad issue as the problem they’re trying to solve. But an issue isn’t a problem. In this case, homelessness is at once too broad (i.e. it isn’t specific enough to address any concerns) and is often understood as specifying a solution (e.g. more government-regulated affordable housing).

Create a problem statement instead. The best template I’ve found is from Dwayne Spradlin:

“We are looking for X in order to achieve Z as measured by W.”

For example, “We are looking for [opioid treatment services] in order to achieve [a 10% reduction in unsheltered homeless] as measured by [real-time, by-name count].”

Step 3: Get consensus with fellow problemsolvers.

You’re almost there!

You’ve already gone from solution-centric interest in a broad issue to deeper problem understanding and a statement of the real problem to solve.

It’s time to test it with your stakeholders. Do they agree with your map and that this is the right problem?

By following these simple steps, you can stay laser-focused on finding (and solving) the right problem rather than cheerleading the wrong solution.

To recap

  1. Map the problem’s interrelated causes to understand feedback loops
  2. Define a problem statement
  3. Get consensus on the problem and its causes

See you again next week.


Whenever you’re ready, there are two ways I can help you:

I’m a strategic advisor for the toughest societal problems like poverty, crime and homelessness. People come to me when they want to stop spinning their wheels and get transformative, systems-level change.

I’m a coach for emerging and executive leaders in the social and public sectors who want to make progress on their biggest goals and challenges.

Let’s find out how I can help you become transformational.