At this particular time of year your instinctive response to this question will probably be along the lines of ghosts and vampires, red rum, a sinister video tape, teenagers in hockey masks or malevolent entities named Toby…
However, I’d wager a guess that whilst the thought of these ghoulish figures does occasionally send involuntary shivers up your spine and prompt you to check in the wardrobe before going to bed, they aren’t what truly scares you.
For most of us the answers are far more rooted in everyday reality. What if I don’t pass that test? What if sales don’t pick up? What if I don’t get that promotion? Doubt that we can meet challenges head on and succeed. Well as every half-good horror film in the past 90 years has taught us, the only way to overcome a fear is to face it. Pull off the mask, confront the demon, find out everything about it until you know exactly how to destroy it.
Face your fear
Welcome to Defining the Problem. This is how you can shine a light on that terrifying unknown in the shadows. Knowledge is indeed power and the more you know about and understand what scares you, the less frightening it will be. You may in fact discover that what you thought you needed to overcome wasn’t actually what you should have been focusing on –much like when it turns out that the killer isn’t the creepy janitor, but the kooky best friend. The way to do this is to ‘Define the Problem’ and you can do this in 7 simple steps.
1) Draw a Mind Map – Five Wives and One Husband
This is the template we will be using to get down the facts of the problem. Before analysing or trying to find the solution, you need to make sure you understand the problem itself. This is no time for jumping to conclusions, but rather for laying out all the pieces of the puzzles objectively – think Sherlock Holmes, or Dr Gregory House.
The first branch will consider the ‘What’ of the situation. What are the facts? You want to investigate the circumstances of the issue and probe details around it, without making any assumptions. This is the place to break down vague statements, like ‘sales are dropping’ into manageable, smaller chunks. What is/is not happening? Where is it happening? Who is it happening to? When is it happening? How?
For example, if sales have dropped in your business, you would want to include: by how much, when they started to drop – is it on specific days, in a particular region or a particular product line? Very importantly, you will also need to include what your goal is. If your problem is dropping sales, what are you aiming to boost them to?
Here you want to identify the root cause of the problem – why has the problem occurred? If it is not possible to answer that question or if you are working with an opportunity rather than a problem, then why do you want to achieve the goal you have set yourself?
The key to this part of Defining the Problem, is invoking your inner 4 year old and ask ‘Why? Why? Why?’ in response to every answer you give. The broken record ‘Why?’ that so often infuriates parents around the world is in fact a very powerful tool for uncovering any holes in your logic. How often have you found yourself rolling your eyes and giving seemingly obvious answers, only to be asked ‘why?’ one more time and find yourself at a complete loss?
Where can the problem be resolved? What facilities and people will you need around you? Where are these located? You want to identify the best location or environment for working through the problem or implementing a solution.
Who can help you? Consider who would have the knowledge, influence or skills to aid you in overcoming the problem. These could be people you know, or you may have to search for outside expertise.
What is your deadline? When must your problem be overcome, or your goal reached? This will allow you to build a timeframe for finding and implementing your solution. If the problem requires an urgent remedy, such as our example below, perhaps you will need to find a short term fix whilst you work on a long term solution.
This is a tricky one, but a very important question. How does the problem or challenge influence people or activities? What are the ripple effects? If you are receiving bad feedback on your company’s latest product, this could mean an increased workload for the Support Team, low morale in the Development Team who worked hard to create it, increased expenditure on refunds and a reallocation of Marketing time from proactive initiatives to damage control. Understanding what is affected by a situation gives you a fuller picture of what needs to be addressed and can highlight issues you hadn’t previously considered.
Once you’ve gone through the map, adding all of the information at your disposal, you will have a complete picture of what you are dealing with. You have looked at the problem from all angles and should be able to see the weak points and the recurring themes. If you’ve been going in the wrong direction, this should become apparent.
Perhaps those bumps in the night aren’t coming from some malevolent spirit in your house, but actually the result of a sleepwalking daughter or draft from an open window – in which case, reading up on demons and exorcisms won’t help you find a solution. Similarly, if you’re getting bad feedback and reviews on your product or service, maybe it isn’t the product at fault but rather that you are marketing to the wrong audience…
Defining the Problem lets you step back from the problem and forces it to reveal itself. Think of it like a movie montage where the hero is training for the showdown, arming himself with everything he needs to defeat the bad guys. Yes, it may still be scary, but now you have everything you need to start generating solutions that will work. You don’t want to end up like those naive, doomed teenagers who think they’ve killed the serial killer, only for him come back to life behind them and…well…you know the rest.
For a deeper look into Defining the Problem, check out ‘GRASP The Solution’ by Chris Griffiths.
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