Why does one problem always lead to another?

Why does one problem always lead to another?

I can’t remember the number of times that clients re-opened a case or issue after we thought that it was resolved. Take the example of how we tried to help a client get relevant email reports:

Our software has a feature that allows users to schedule customized email reports to themselves.

A customer one day asked if the email report could include more data points, as some of their reports exceeded a set limit on how much data can be included. So we doubled the amount of data each report could include.

The same customer asked a few weeks later if the tool could send graphical email reports (email reports were shown in table formats up until now), which would make things easier to read. So we began work on that feature as well.

A few months later, the customer reached back out to our product team and asked whether we could automatically send email alerts when certain events happen, rather than wait for the data in a scheduled email the next morning.

That’s when something clicked in our minds. We realized that all their requests pointed to one single problem. They needed a way to receive actionable information at the right time. It took us months to finally realize it. Pre-scheduled email reports helped with that goal, but didn’t completely solve the problem. Only when the customer asked for automated alerts did it click that we were solving symptoms to their problem rather than addressing the problem.

If I had the opportunity to re-tackle this client’s request from the beginning, I would identify the client’s true pain first rather than do what they asked each time. I’d then follow up with an idealized design process to think of potential solutions. It would have saved a lot of time.

It has become clear to me over the years that a problem will rarely be solved if we fail to identify its root cause. To this effect, I’ve designed a framework to help vet problems. I’ll be exploring it in detail below and walk through a personal example together.

What’s the problem with dishes?

Let’s explore our framework by working through a typical conflict among roommates, where one person doesn’t want to wash their dishes, while another person needs to use clean dishes.

What is the problem / pain / frustration? One roommate doesn’t want to wash their dishes, while another needs clean dishes to eat.

Who are the players involved and how do they perceive the situation?

Person A: Person having to wash the dishes

What does this person desire? Clean dishes without having to spend time washing dishes.

How does this person perceive the situation? Spending too much time washing dishes.

Why is this painful (starting a root cause analysis)? Perception that time can be better spent elsewhere.

Why is dish washing not a good use of time? Washing dishes isn’t as enjoyable as other activities. It’s boring.

Why is it boring? Perception that washing dishes is a chore, and we don’t enjoy doing chores in our society.

Why don’t we enjoy doing chores? There is a perception that chores should be performed by people whose time is less valuable than ours.

Why are dishes not worth my time? We want to feel proud about what we spend our time doing, and there’s nothing prideful about washing dishes.

Why do I want to be proud of what I do? Want to be happy.

Person B: Person that needs to use clean dishes

What does this person desire? Clean dishes without having to spend time washing dishes, and without having to spend time convincing someone else to wash the dishes.

How does this person perceive the situation? Dishes are not washed and I am not responsible for doing them.

Why is this painful? I feel a lack of respect as my roommate is failing to wash dishes that he used.

Why is the roommate responsible for it? There’s the perception that an agreement exists on who should wash dishes, and it’s not honored.

Why isn’t it honored? The roommate doesn’t care about the agreement.

Why doesn’t the roommate care about the agreement? There hasn’t been a verbal or written agreement around the expectation that has been agreed upon by the roommate.

Why hasn’t there been a formal agreement? There exists a perception that cleaning up after oneself is a social norm.

Why isn’t the roommate abiding by the social norm? They’re not aware of it.

So what are the actual problems experienced? Person A doesn’t find happiness washing dishes, while person B feels that Person A isn’t respecting a social norm on who’s responsible to wash dishes.

The simple framework above helped us evaluate a problem from different perspectives, and identify the root cause of each player’s pain. It’s not simply that person A doesn’t want to do dishes, it’s that they don’t enjoy doing it. There’s a difference. And it’s not just that person B needs clean dishes, it’s also that they feel a social norm isn’t being respected. Now that we have full clarity and context around our problem, we can go ahead to identify solutions and innovate, responsibly. Solving either root causes will likely also solve other problems beyond just dishes.

Before ending this blog post, I’d like to recommend “Are your lights on” for further insights on problem definition. It’s in my opinion one of the best books on problem definition.

Recommended exercise

Next time that someone identifies a problem, let’s break it down and identify the root cause using the framework above.

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