C-Suite Advisory

Solving the Wrong Problem? 3 Ways Problem Priming Is the Answer

Margaret Rogers, vice president at Pariveda Solutions

In business, solutions can be hard to come by. That’s especially true when the right problems aren’t being addressed. Teams often begin working on solving one particular issue but end up solving a different problem altogether, resulting in a lot of wasted time and energy. Sound familiar? To mitigate instances of spending resources on the incorrect issue, consider problem priming as a methodical way to help teams more effectively and efficiently align their efforts to their desired goals.

Odd as it sounds, people are sometimes too focused on the end goal. As they start to discover pieces of the solution, blinders go up and round solutions start to be forced into square holes. The inability to adapt — to improvise and pivot based on new information — is what gets people into trouble.

In March 2020, LinkedIn released a report that identified the most sought-after soft skills that learning and development leaders coveted in employees. Second on the list (behind leadership and management) was creative problem-solving and design thinking. Businesses need people who can dissect complicated problems and create innovative ideas to solve them. How can you polish your problem priming skills? You can start with the following tactics.

  1. LEARN THE INPUTS TO ANY PROBLEM
    The goal of problem priming is to do your best to uncover and understand the variability of a problem and its dynamic nature. When looking at all of the elements that could influence the outcome of your solution, you can typically focus on three key aspects — people, process, and technology.
    1. People — This aspect includes both internal and external human factors. What’s going on with your employees? What about the stakeholders involved with the project? Or customers, partners, or anybody external to your organization?
    2. Process — Examine what’s happening internally. What are the norms in how you operate today? How far against that norm might we go to solve this problem? What outside factors can impact the outcome of our decisions?
    3. Technology — Think through how technology relates to both the problem and the solution. What technology do you use today, and how dynamically is the landscape changing in that technology stack? How could technology enable solutions?
    Map out the people, processes, and technology in play so that you get a well-rounded view of the problem without leaving any facets in your blind spot.
  2. GET STAKEHOLDERS ON THE SAME PAGE
    A crucial first step is project alignment, which requires bringing together the stakeholders and having a holistic conversation about the problems to solve. Stakeholders should include not only employees, but also the customer if applicable.
    I once had an industrial manufacturing client that supplied parts for everything from pipes and controllers to filters. The client wanted help creating a global content management system and a brand-new website that would allow a higher-level global view. We developed working sessions to better understand how its customers viewed the company, how the company thought about products across different regions, and how their messaging varied by region. We realized that each regional president had a different way of operating and balked at an information push from corporate, which felt to them like a grab for control.
    This stakeholder conversation should produce a clear agreement about goals, risks, and success metrics. You can accomplish this in several ways, such as gathering different people’s perspectives via interviews and uncovering potential friction points (like autonomy versus cohesion, in this client’s case).
  3. PROBLEM PRIME PROACTIVELY AS A HABIT
    Nobody can predict where they’ll be in five years because the world is never static. The only real way to combat life’s unpredictability is to constantly problem prime. That way, you can uncover changes ahead of time and proactively adapt to them as you go.
    The aforementioned client was not proactively problem priming. We talked about normalizing the company’s product catalog and targeting companies with multiple locations, but the stakeholders had a protective fear around it; individual teams wanted total control over their own product catalogs. Even though they wanted to cross-sell and upsell to customers across regions, their customers weren’t organized to make purchases that way. The client told us this made sense when it didn’t for their customers, so we were well on our way to solving the wrong problem. We ended up splitting the website by different locations and ultimately didn’t achieve phase two — organizing it at the product level — as planned.

Looking back, I’ve since learned that understanding the people, cultures, and business processes attached to a problem are essential to influencing the project’s outcome. Figuring out exactly how to get to success — some level of education, agreement, or resolution — requires understanding those factors and uncovering the interconnected relationships and moving parts that play into the problem and its solution. By gaining this understanding, you may even be able to redirect the conversation and uncover the right problem in the first place.


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Margaret Rogers
Margaret Rogers is a vice president at Pariveda Solutions, a consulting firm driven to create innovative, growth-oriented, and people-first solutions. Margaret Rogers is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.