You have probably heard the statement “A question well put is half answered” or something similar to it. John Dewey wrote this in his book “How We Think” about one hundred years ago. In fact, Dewey’s entire sentence is: “A question well put is half answered; i.e., a difficulty clearly apprehended is likely to suggest its own solution, -- while a vague and miscellaneous perception of a problem leads to groping and fumbling.” (page 94)
I would like to focus on the latter part of the quote; a part that rarely, if ever, is considered. In this part, Dewey writes that a vague and miscellaneous perception of a problem leads to groping and fumbling.
We spend a lot of time in business schools teaching students how to solve problems. We don’t spend nearly as much time in undergraduate business programs focused on the nuances of problem formulation. Students in an MBA program are likely to spend time identifying a problem, especially in a case study course, but even there I would venture to say that we spend more time discussing the pros and cons of various potential solutions to a problem than we do examining how to define the problem we confront and what we can learn directly from the process of formulating the problem at hand.
I’m not talking about a course where a student learns to formulate a linear programming problem or a system of equations. I’m talking about having students study problem formulation. Complex problems have many stakeholders. These stakeholders often have competing and / or conflicting objectives. Resources are often limited. The business environment is dynamic and ambiguous. Often, the problems confronted by decision makers in business are not problems that can be solved in terms of a “correct” answer. More likely, the problem may be resolved with solutions that can be characterized as good, better, or best. In some cases, executing an extensive problem formulation process can dissolve a problem through the better understanding we gain as a result of carefully considering what the problem is.
I suspect we could build an entire class on the topic of problem formulation, and make it really interesting by integrating aspects of research techniques, creativity, and critical analysis, among other topics.
After all, solving the wrong problem rarely leads to any good outcomes.