Monday, September 19, 2011

Solving the Right Problem

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.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Now More Then Ever

If the title of this post caught your eye as “incorrect” – congratulations!

One of our new challenges in the business school is to convince students that writing still matters. In a world where text messages and “tweeting” make the ability to communicate with new combinations of symbols an asset, we can understand how the ability to write properly could degenerate. I’m no English professor, but I do strive to write properly. By “properly” I mean I try to punctuate sentences correctly, to use the correct word, and to write clearly and concisely.

Lately, students often object when I do not give them full credit on assignments due to writing errors. Over the last few years, the most common error I see is the misuse of “then.” I don’t know why “then” is used so frequently where “than” is the correct word to use.

All professors have their favorite examples of mistakes and I would not be surprised to find a web site devoted to such errors. Such errors can provide great comic relief, but is that what you want your writing known for in a business setting?

A Newspaper Ad
I remind students that they may be known by their written work well before they are known “personally” in a large organization. The memoranda they write could be read by anyone. That usually does not get their attention until I remind them how easy it is to forward an email.

I ask them, “If someone only knew you by your written work, would they want you in front of an important client? Would they feel you will pay attention to detail and manage an important project well?”

I know some of my colleagues do not want to be in the position of grading grammar, but to the extent we can elevate our students’ written work, we will graduate a better business student. Writing skills are important – perhaps now more than ever!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Three Powerful Questions

A lot of business school education focuses on solutions. We teach our students many techniques for solving many types of problems. Outside of a case study course, we don’t get into the area of identifying what type of problem we are confronting very often. It is more often the case that the problem is “given” and we teach students how to solve the problem should they ever run into it (or one similar to it) in business.

I’d like to suggest that we consider integrating three questions more deeply into the business school curriculum.

The first question is, “What problem are you trying to solve?” I have found this to be a very powerful question to ask and to answer. Asking it usually causes a decision maker to stop cold and reflect on exactly what she confronts. Once considered, answering this question usually eliminates a lot of distractions and superfluous options. When we know what problem we are really trying to solve, we gain a focus that we did not have.

The second question is, “What will success look like?” In business education, I feel we should impress upon our students the idea of establishing a metric of some kind (and it need not be quantitative) so that we will know what success looks like. Another way of phrasing this question is, “How will you know you have solved the problem?” but I personally like the idea of framing the question in terms of success. The answer to this question provides criteria for assessing later how good the solution really is.

The third question is, “Who will hate your solution (and why)?” We naturally tend to think of the “good” aspects of a problem solution and all of the people who will be happy with our solution. We don’t spend too much time thinking about who is going to hate our solution and why they will hate it. I believe it is worthwhile to consider this perspective, because it leads us to being more critical of our work. Often, when we take a critical perspective of our work we can identify ways to improve it. We rarely seek to improve a solution that we think is good.

What problem are you trying to solve?
What will success look like?
Who will hate your solution (and why)?