A Simple and Powerful Question to Ask.

A simple and powerful question to ask as a manager is “What problem are we trying to solve?”.

It seems ridiculous to even spend time writing a blog and doing a video about this question, but I’m always surprised at how few leaders and managers ask this simple question.

When I work with clients it’s the first question I ask about my own gig with them – what problem am I here to try and solve?

It is also a question I ask in every meeting, about every piece of work, about everything that people do.

It’s a powerful question – very powerful.

The reason it is powerful is because it couches the answer in evidence, analysis and an understanding of why the work needs doing.

Busy Work

In many organisations there are lots of people doing busy work, but is that busy work solving problems that lay between where we are now, and where we need to get to?

Are they solving the right problems? Is this work valuable?

In one organisation I was in, I reckon at least 90% of the staff were spending most of their day preparing PowerPoint presentations.

When I asked people what problem that PowerPoint was solving – I never got a reasonable answer. They’d been asked to do it by a manager or exec.

When I went to speak to the manager or exec, and I asked them what problem the PowerPoints were solving – they never gave a good answer.

Why are people working on it?

When I asked the execs in another company why they were spending £100+ million on a digital transformation program – I got vague answers.

It’s why the program was so flawed. So much work got done and then thrown away. People didn’t really know what was happening. Work was always late, delayed and missing. Armies of people were brought in to try and “control” the spending and the madness. Yet I never heard a single exec or manager asking what problem the work was trying to solve. Almost zero analysis about the current reality – and how to move to a new one.

How do you know the work is done, if you don’t know what the work is for?

If we don’t know what problem we’re solving, or what opportunity we’re opening up, then how can we ever know when the work is done?

And that’s the problem many companies are wrangling with. Lots of people, doing lots of work, but no quantifiable way to say it’s done, or it’s adding value, or the solutions are the right ones.

To develop the right solutions, we need to know the right problems.

Rolling it out

When I first started asking the question as a manager people were taken aback. They’d never had to answer a question like that before.

  • “Because I’ve been asked to”
  • “Because it feels like the right thing to do”
  • “Because I want to do this work”

After a while everyone in the organisation knew I would ask this question; leaders, execs, managers, the team – they would all come prepared with the answer. Great.

After a while longer everyone in our team started asking the question about all work heading their way. It became a cultural norm – to truly define the value of work before we say “yes” to it.

No more teams or people doing busy work that added no business value.

Ask this question about everything; that new initiative, this meeting we’re about to spend an hour in, that new job opening, the strategy document, that new tech.

And trust me – there is so much work that goes on in an organisation that has zero due diligence, consideration, evidence or analysis about it.

Why it works

This question gets to the root of the work. It gets to the essence of WHY we’re doing the work.

  • It gives you a decision-making tool.
    • Do we solve it this way?
    • Or that way?
  • It gives you a way to prioritise.
    • Do we solve this problem?
    • Or that one?
  • It gives you a critical thinking tool.
    • Will this solution actually solve the problem?
    • Does this problem even need solving?
  • More importantly, it gives you a way to make yourself, and the business better.

Why focus on problems?

The reason I use the word problem a lot, is because business is the art and joy of overcoming problems. All businesses have more problems than can be realistically solved.

A good business has interesting problems that people want to solve. Because there are always more problems than can be solved, it makes sense to only solve the ones that are stopping the business from achieving their business results. This question gets to the basics of that.

Some people like to ask, “What are we trying to achieve?” or “what are we doing today?”, but these questions talk about what we’re doing and how to do it, not whether it should be done at all.

A problem is really an opportunity.

  • Low sales; a problem but also an opportunity to fix the process, define value and get the message out.
  • Low customer retention; a problem but also an opportunity to study the process, ask questions and make the value to the customer better.
  • Low quality product; a problem but also an opportunity to improve the stability, value or whatever else is causing poor quality.

By focusing on the problem and deeply understanding it, you stand a much better chance of solving it.

I encourage you to use this question liberally – ask it at all times.

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