Framing Issues for Effective Problem-Solving

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Remember the days in math class when your teacher handed out an assignment of word problems? You thought: “Will I ever use this stuff in real life?… And why are we … “ Then the mouthy kid blurts it out for you: “Why are we working with words in math class?” Delighted at the expected response, your teacher replies. “Solving complex word problems force you to formulate an equation to solve, rather than simply plugging in the arithmetic.”

framing problems

What she didn’t tell you is that you can use problem statements in real life, like right now when you’re managing your staff at the office, or simply taking on the pile on your desk. Who knew?

Formulating clear problem statements saves your company time and money. If you’re in doubt, a Distinguished MIT Professor may set your mind at ease.

Importance of Problem Statements

Nelson Repenning, of MIT Sloan School of Management, likes to keep it simple. He says articulating clear problem statements is the single most important management skill. He draws on psychological research indicating that in order devise optimized solutions you have to get your brain out of autopilot mode.

How do you shift out of autopilot? Just write the word problem and keep it simple, like this: “Our sales goal was X, but we fell short by Y”. Voila! Repenning advises team leaders to resist the temptation to include solutions in the problem statement,

because it could narrow the outcome. Since there are often many ways to solve a problem, options should remain open.

patton quote never tell people how

Opportunity for Change

Organizational leaders tend to be proactive and detail-oriented, presenting solutions right out the gate. This approach not only stifles creativity, but funnels your team toward your solution, hence preventing a range of other options team members may devise on their own. Control freak managers (if you’re not sure that’s you, ask your loved ones  if you qualify) may have a tough time listening to guys like a distinguished MIT prof. If so, they can take orders from General George S. Patton, who famously said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

problem solving as a team


Savvy business leaders highly value the team player who takes initiative. If you are a leader, or work for one whose motto is “My way or the highway,” (and you still have a job) consider opening up your options. You don’t need a focus study or a pricey consultant firm to tell you “More Minds Matter”. Why settle for a tamale when you can have a whole fiesta? There’s’ no reason to rob your team of the chance to collaborate and evaluate multiple methods for the optimal solution.

Inc. magazine’s recent interview with the prof provides insights as to how you can form statements using Repenning’s simple problem-solving approach.

Team Building for Problem Solving

At Venture Up, we are in a continual mode of innovation, creating problem-solving exercises to breathe life into training programs. Program facilitators keep directions simple and when pressed for more, the stock answer is, “Figure it out.”

Harvard Medical School tells us it’s a myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains.  Robert H. Shmerling, MD says it “defies logic and well-accepted scientific principles for an organ to increase in size over the course of thousands of years if 90 percent of it was going unused — especially considering that the brain requires a good deal of blood flow and energy to keep running.”  Likewise, business teams also have more power than any one manager with a narrow view of how to solve a problem.

Modern research cannot tell us the what percent of the brain humans use. What we do know — if a 4-star general and an MIT prof are reliable sources — if a team leader insists on her one way to solve a problem, she is blocking out a powerful resource; a team full of ingenuity whose members may be chomping at the bit to get collaborative and find the best way for optimal results.