A clear sign of a poorly identified the problem is irrational disagreement. You’ve been in these meetings: one person brings up a great idea, another shoots it down immediately, and participants voice conflicting opinions about said idea. This conversation quickly degenerates and you know, instinctively, you’re going to leave in 45 minutes without accomplishing anything, except adding yet another gray hair to your head.
These conversations often occur because participants differ in their opinion of what the problem really is. The dialog is laden with solutions and each person internalizes how each solution might solve their particular version of the problem.
What Can You Do?
The step you absolutely must take is simple. Simply say:
“I think I might be missing something here. Can you clarify for me what problem are we trying to solve?”
Let the conversation shift as people state their version of the problem. But you are not done yet. Many might bring up their solutions as problems. And some might have trouble articulating what the problem really is. Reach into your facilitator’s bag-of-tricks for multiple ways to refocus the discussion without sounding irritating and redundant.
- If we did XYZ, what would happen?
- What benefit does XYZ have?
- What would change once XYZ is in place?
- How does XYZ change things?
- Why should I care about XYZ?
- What’s your goal? (or, the goal)
- How would XYZ impact you? (good technique to shift the conversation to a non-participant)
- What else do we need to think about if we do XYZ?
- Let’s talk about what problem we might be trying to solve here. (yea, it’s often necessary to re-iterate, just re-phrase if you can!)
- How would your day-to-day work change if we did this?
I could go on, but then I’d risk sounding redundant. And I know with this list in hand you’ll be able to come up with your own ideas for asking why with finesse. The important thing is that you be persistent in your pursuit of the real problem and don’t stop asking questions until you’ve got agreement from all participants on what the problem really is.