State a Problem in Simplest Terms

The other day, a long-term client of mine called me up to see a problem of theirs. Since it is a public sector organization they soon sent me a RFP (request for proposal) over email with a fairly detailed SOW (Scope of Work).

In the SOW, they mentioned all that needs to be done, almost breaking down each step. In short, they were proposing a detailed method to solve their problem.

When they followed me up over phone, I said, “With such a detailed methodology in place, why would you ever need me?”

Sensing that they did not get it, I elaborated, “Does it mean if you just have the results of those steps that you have listed out you get to the answer you are looking for? Do you think that such detailed investigations, which you have already carried out earlier, would inflate costs without getting anywhere close to the solution?”

Fortunately, they quickly realized the gap. They asked me, “What should we do then?”

I replied, “State your problem in its most basic and simplest terms. Complex, nagging problems can’t be neatly defined. Instead, you could just state your concern about the problem. That would trigger our collective minds to flow easily to reach a solution. For example, you could state that you are suffering from a headache every evening.”

“O.K.” they said, “Our issue is that we are responding as per prescribed textbook rules to solve this problem and the problem seems to be temporarily fixed but it resurfaces after some time.”

“Just state that. And then we follow the cues to get to a working hypothesis, a working methodology to test out the hypothesis, collect data, arrange and interpret the data, collectively understand the issue with the simplest theories that fit the facts of the problem, formulate practical actions, carry out those to test our hypothesis and learn more to eliminate the problem for good.”

In the next fifteen minutes they sent the revised RFP, stating their concern.

By stating a problem in its basic and simplest terms we allow our minds to pay attention to flow effortlessly towards a solution.

That is what is needed when we tackle complex problems – problems for which answers are not available in the books or can’t be googled.

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