Become a Better Problem Solver by Telling Better Stories

One of the biggest obstacles to effective decision-making is failure to define the problem well. Invoking the power of narrative and a simple story structure can help ensure that teams are solving the right problem.

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Alex Nabaum/

Like many companies at the end of 2021, a small European precision toolmaker was having trouble hiring and retaining talent. The executive team had a solution: Create a more attractive social space to encourage informal collaboration. But when the head of human resources presented the plan to the board (which included one of this article’s coauthors), the directors were puzzled. They didn’t know what problem the redesign was supposed to solve.

In retrospect, their confusion was understandable. The executive team had not spelled out the extent of the company’s recruitment challenges or made clear the link between the social space and attracting talent. Rather than seeking approval for the new space, they should have been discussing the best way to make the company a more attractive place to work or, more broadly, how to assemble the talent they needed given the expanding competition for talent across industries.

This is a familiar pattern we have encountered in our teaching and executive consulting. In the face of complex problems and strategic decisions, executives often choose the wrong problem to solve. They focus on symptoms instead of causes, base their thinking on false assumptions and artificial constraints, and overlook key stakeholders. The answer, we have found, is to change the way the problem is defined. By doing so, business leaders can significantly expand their universe of alternatives and identify radically better solutions.

Seeking Problem Solvers

To find better answers, it is necessary to ask better questions. This is called problem framing. Often neglected, this initial step in the decision-making sequence sets the trajectory for generating alternative options. It is critical for two reasons: It can reveal new possible solutions, and it avoids wasting time, money, and effort on half-baked ideas.

In our study of more than 700 international executives, 60% identified poor problem formulation as one of the two most prevalent barriers to effective problem-solving in their organizations. (The other is insufficient stakeholder engagement.)

An effectively framed problem is simple to understand, which may explain why executives often underestimate the effort that good problem formulation requires.



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