Find the Right Problem to Solve

Digging deep by BC Transportation Dept

Is the obvious solution wasting your time? Get to the roots of the problem to gain leverage.

A few years back The Simpsons lampooned an experience many of us have had. In “The Great Money Caper,” a sturgeon falls from the sky onto the hood of the family car, crushing it like a can.  When Homer takes it to the garage, the mechanic gives it a thorough looking over before declaring, “Well, there’s your problem. You’ve got a sturgeon on your hood.”

Been there? You describe a problem and someone points at the most obvious issue, declaring, “There’s your problem.” Thanks, Captain Obvious.

This is so human, though. We are problem solvers, and most of us can’t bear to be exposed to a problem without immediately offering a solution. Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, authors of the Freakonomics books, urge us to get over that habit: “rather than address… root causes, we often spend billions of dollars treating the symptoms and are left to grimace when the problem remains… [You] should work terribly hard to identify and attack the root cause of problems” (Think Like a Freak, 2014).

They aren’t kidding about it being terribly hard work to find those root causes. It takes patience and a break from our usual habit of pointing out solutions.

Last night I facilitated a book discussion about Dubner & Levitt’s Think Like A Freak, and at times I offered examples of problems to which we could apply a principle from the book (dig for the roots, challenge the question, design an incentive but anticipate that it might not work, teach your garden to weed itself). No matter what we were trying to practice, the first thing folks had to do was offer solutions.

Digging deeper to get to the roots is so challenging that I’ve found it helpful to lean on something called the Systems Thinking Iceberg.  This is my favourite version:

Systems Thinking Iceberg

This one comes from Peter Senge’s book The Necessary Revolution. Take a hard look at the image.  You’ll notice that at the top are the obvious events–that’s your sturgeon on the hood. Just beneath the surface are patterns–events that repeat with some regularity (sturgeons that keep falling). Dig a little deeper and you get to structures (open-cargo airplanes?). These structures explain why that pattern is recurring, because they are essentially directing and shaping the pattern. Dig a little deeper and you get to mental models–the ways in which people think. (“Open cargo airplanes save time and money!”) Mental models are about worldview, values, and beliefs.

Here’s another silly example designed to help you see how the theory works:

  • You see a Model T drive down a city street. That’s an event. You might react to the event. “Hey, look at that car! I haven’t seen one of those in 20 years!”
  • Over time you notice several cars from the 20s, 30s, and 40s driving down the street. That’s a pattern.  The Systems Thinking Iceberg then tells us that what you can do if you identify a pattern is anticipate what will happen: more cars from the early 20th century will be driving down this street. Because you can predict the pattern, you might call Aunt Martha to join you on the balcony to see the cool parade of cars.
  • You eventually ask yourself, “Why are all of these old cars around?”  The cars are rare. Their bodies rust and their parts are difficult and expensive to replace. If everyone is now driving old cars we might start to have problems. So you start thinking about what structures might be in place to explain the pattern. Acting on a hunch, you check for local events and discover a vintage car show in town.  If you are a car enthusiast you might decide to create your own car shows so you can increase your own and others’ chances of seeing them–designing structures to change behaviors.
  • Finally, if you do begin designing these events and encounter resistance among the car owners, you might have to find out more about their mental models. What has persuaded them to drive across the country for a car show before? What do they care about? How do they think? In order to successfully sponsor a new show, you might have to transform your own assumptions and understanding about what’s behind the shows and what it takes to make one happen.

Therefore, as we dig down into the iceberg we find more and more leverage for changing things. We get down to the roots of the problem, as Levitt and Dubner might say, so we can understand the thinking that drives the creation of the structures that shapes the patterns that cause the events.

If you are dealing with a stuck problem, then, take some time with it and study it with the help of the Systems Thinking Iceberg. Ask others for their ideas so you can get outside your own blind spots. Work terribly hard–because in the long run, you’ll save yourself the time and energy it has been costing you to deal with all those darned sturgeons that keep falling from the sky and crushing your car.


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