Scott R. Coplan

What’s The Problem?

The Problem

Sounds counterproductive, bordering on absurd, but why are there so many situations where a solution is at the ready but the problem is yet to be understood or even identified properly? Take the U.S. war on drugs as an example. In 1971, President Nixon started this forever war, a never-ending state with no definition of when it ends. Politicians to this day say they support the war, spending over $1 trillion since 1971 with drug use actually climbing again in the U.S. Funding this solution makes no sense, yet we keep doing it.

Although at a much smaller scale, there are many examples of a solution in search of a problem within most organizations. I recall, after a long day, my client Dean lifted weights stored in his office, before returning home each evening. This one night he talked about the events of our day and then invited me to join him in weightlifting. After completing a bar-bell bench press, Dean began building a pile of reports. I wondered if this was part of his weightlifting routine. I remember him pointing to the four-foot-high stack and saying, “This is a pile of consultant reports.” Some offered a proposed solution, while others explained how to resolve the mistakes caused after implementing a prior recommendation.

There must be a far better way to solve problems.

The Solution

In Dean’s office, I wondered if he really wanted to say the tower of consultant reports was literally and metaphorically a pile of sh*t. But I avoided going there. I did offer, “There’s no magic to any of this. It’s just work — hard work. You and your organization must start by defining the problem. I can guide you through this effectively.”
With no further description needed, we completed our workout and went to Dean’s house for dinner.
Two years later, after thoroughly evaluating the situation, and understanding the problem, Dean’s division completed a successful implementation of a new case management system, the recommended solution to his organization’s problem. The solution lasted about 20 years. Dean’s successor called us back to help identify new problems. We did and implemented a new solution successfully.
As a change agent, I helped Dean and his leadership ensure they had a strong foundation in place to refine and sustain a strong problem-solving organization proactively and intentionally. We identified the organization needed to:
  1. Question assumptions
  2. Consider options other than the status quo
  3. Remain open to new ideas
  4. Avoid relying on a single individual as a mouthpiece for the truth
On a more detailed level, I guided Dean and his project team through the following process:
1. Scope

Identifying those affected by the problem, such as the entire organization, a division within it, a small group, and so on. This helped draw an organization chart to see the project scope based on who it included. The organization chart identified the chain of sponsorship. These were the individuals with legitimate or demonstrated authority to own the problem and the change required to solve it (Authorizing Sponsors), as well as those who reinforced the change at the local level (Reinforcing Sponsors).

2. Findings

Determining how best to collect facts that defined the problem from a cross section of individuals involved without judgement. We conducted a combination of quantitative and qualitative assessments, including a survey of the effected individuals, group interviews of a diverse set of stakeholders, and one-on-one interviews with a cross-section of formal and informal top, middle, and front-line sponsors and their direct reports. The key was to find the fastest way to collect the most information objectively from the greatest number of divers viewpoints.

3. Conclusions

Drawing conclusions from the collected facts that defined the problem. The collected data virtually shouted conclusions from the facts. We kept hearing the same answers to questions during interviews and found the survey reinforced these findings. Interviewees often repeated the same facts, uncovered critical nuances about the problem, and offered potential ways of solving it successfully. For example, paper files overloaded everyone and there wasn’t any useful workload data available to distribute case assignments equitably.

And of course, there were outliers. They disclosed unique pearls of wisdom, highlighting all kinds of previously unknown facts about the problem and even a viable set of solutions.

Ultimately, it was about analyzing the data objectively based on patterns and exceptions. This involved combining the large amount of data from the diverse sources and organizing findings of fact into categories and then defining logical conclusions. This meant ensuring conclusions flowed logically from the findings, like individual links connected in a chain.

4. Recommendations

Conducting an options analysis and recommending a specific solution. Like the analysis that included uncovering findings and drawing conclusions, the recommendations followed a logical chain from those conclusions. This involved establishing more than one solution and often multiple ways of implementing them. For example, one solution included a new case management system. However, there were multiple ways to implement it, including tobuild a software solution from scratch or “buy” a commercial off-the-shelf product. To make matters more complex, there were also different delivery methods, that is, providing the system from the organization’s premises or from the cloud.

Recommending one solution and a specific way of implementing it demanded a justification. This meant synthesizing the analysis into a compelling business case for one specific option, based on the logic that, whatever the required resources consumed, they supported the “best” way of solving the specific problem.

The options analysis compared what it took to develop a build solution versus contacting a product vendor about what a buy solution involved. The basis for the analysis included definition of high-level customer needs, followed by evaluating them by each solution, resulting in something like a Consumer Reports product comparison. The business case identified the option with the lowest cost, smallest risk, highest agreement with project objectives, greatest support for user requirements, and most benefits. The recommendation, acquire and implement a case management, cloud-based, vendor product.

In the end, don’t allow your organization to start a forever war. After all, it really all comes down to a single question, What’s the problem? The answer lies in defining the problem scope, findings, and conclusions to create a recommended solution for successful implementation.


My experience.

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