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How many times have you been discussing a solution to a problem, and you witness smart and reasonable people at each other’s throats? Perhaps you were one of those people?

More often than not, the combatants were trying to solve different problems, or held conflicting opinions on whether the problem was worth solving. But instead of debating those core issues, they were engaged in a fruitless argument about a final solution.  Had they taken the time to clarify the problem upfront, they would be much more likely to converge on a shared solution.

We spend much of our time at work with others identifying and solving problems.  Our personal lives are also filled with high stakes and often emotional problem-solving.  The better we are at navigating these waters, the more effective and happier we’ll be at work and at home.

This article outlines the three steps you can take to minimize arguments before they ever start:

1. Define the problem

2. Ask: Is this a problem worth solving?

3. Work on the solution

When you embark, have the mindset that people have good intentions and are working in everyone’s best interests. Until proven otherwise, maintain this point of view and demand it of those involved.

Step #1: Define the PROBLEM

When you’re in a problem-solving discussion, demand that your workgroup stop and define the problem that you’re trying to solve. Don’t accept statements such as, “We all know why we’re here.” (Hey, if we all know why we’re here, then defining the problem should be easy for anyone – so let’s hear it!)

 “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?”

 Do NOT move forward until this is answered.

  • State the problem: You (or someone in the room) state the problem as you perceive it.
  • Solicit input: This won’t be too difficult as people will be chomping at the bit to tell you their version of the problem.
  • Debate: Healthy debate is at the heart of constructive problem-solving. Get it all out on the table and hammer out the problem definition.
  • Define the boundaries: A set of constraints will bring the problem into tighter focus and ferrets out additional assumptions.
  • Agree on the problem statement: Now that you’ve iterated, restate the problem statement, and get agreement from the participants that you’ve defined the problem accurately.

Be sure to encourage everyone to speak, as high rates of participation lead to increased ownership and engagement in the solution, so push people to verbalize their point of view.

Pro-tip: If people go into solution mode, head them off at the pass. Something akin to, “I, too, want to talk about solutions, but don’t you think we should agree on the problem before investing time in discussing potential solutions?”

Be adamant and unrelenting in your demand that the problem is defined. You may feel uncomfortable at first, but in the end, people will appreciate your doggedness. Once the problem is clearly defined, then and only then can you move onto Step #2.

Step #2: Is this a Problem WORTH SOLVING

Now that you have a shared understanding of the problem, your group needs to answer the question “Is this a problem worth solving?”  People frequently skip this step, but it may the most important one! If the problem is not worth solving, then everyone just saved a ton of time and aggravation by ending the discussion now.

You need to ask the direct question, “Do we want to invest in solving this problem?” You’ll be amazed at how many times the answer is “No.”

“Do we want to invest in solving this problem?”

If the answer is “no”, then you’re done.

Just because you have a problem, doesn’t mean it’s worth solving. There are endless unrealized costs and unintended consequences in solving problems.

  • Opportunity cost: We have limited resources (people, money, time) and can only spend them on our most important work.
  • Management bandwidth: Solving problems requires management oversight. Is this where you want to spend management’s energy?
  • Cognitive Load on the organization: Solving problems usually involves some form of change, and change requires others to understand the whys, whats, whos, hows, and whens. Communicating and executing those changes can be an enormous time sink. Is it worth it?

Pro-tip: Sometimes, the “Is it worth it?” question can depend on the solution. If the solution is fast and inexpensive, then “yes,” otherwise “no.” Be aware of such a contingency and shepherd the conversation with this in mind.

Step #3: Work on a SOLUTION

With a clear problem definition and an agreement that it’s worth solving, you can roll up your sleeves and brainstorm a solution.

Open the floodgates and let the ideas flow.

There are many methods for problem-solving, and if you’re reading this, I’ll be you have a complete set in your toolbox. My simple go-to approach is:

  • Ideas: People have been waiting for this moment, so open up the floor for proposed solutions. Don’t drill down or pass judgment(yet), as this will slow down the idea generation.
  • List of options: Once every idea is on the table, form them into a list of options
  • Choose one: Get people to weigh in on the options, discuss the pros/cons, and then converge on the best solution.
  • Owner: Who is going to drive getting this done? If you leave the conversation without an owner, then it was all a big waste of time. There should be one owner, and they should have a date for following up with the team on their progress.

Many times, you’ll find that with a clear problem statement, the solution is right in front of your eyes, and it’s relatively easy to get all the players on board.

Pro-tip: Make room for everyone to speak. For the same reasons as above, when people are part of the creation of the solution, they are more likely to feel a sense of ownership.

Benefits of this Approach

Many of the benefits are evident:

  • Creates clarity and reduces ambiguity.
  • Constructive debate with clear goals and parameters.
  • No time and resources wasted on work that may not solve the top problems.

There are two subtle benefits which are worth pointing out.

Reduces the number of times teammates think someone else is clueless.

At some point, we’ve all left a meeting wondering, “Why does Bob want to do X? What is he thinking?” I’m willing to bet that Bob thought we were clueless too! Often, it’s because Bob was solving one problem, and we were solving a different problem. Had we clarified the problem upfront, it’s likely we would have been more aligned than we thought and have greater understanding and respect for our teammates.

“Line in the sand” prevention

When people have a firm conviction about a solution, they will sometimes start a discussion with a determined statement about the solution they want. And once they’ve made such a hard-line public statement, they are less likely to back off, whether their solution meets the problem or not. Why? Because they are afraid of appearing weak. You can reduce the chances of this situation occurring by forcing a conversation about the problem statement. If the agreed-upon problem does not meet the hard-liner’s pre-conceived solution, they are more likely to keep the solution in their pocket and not derail the team.

We spend a massive amount of our time work solving problems with others. When you have a culture where it’s the norm to invest in problem definition, there is less conflict and fewer misunderstandings. The process of clarifying problems and then working on problems that we all agree need to be solved injects energy into the environment and makes the endeavor more enjoyable.