A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved. — Charles Kettering

The inventor and businessman Charles Kettering produced some truly great insights and this one might be his finest. It points to a classic problem in the modern workplace. Visit any organization and ask people to name the core business problem they should be working on and everyone will give different answers. A few people will define the problem from a standpoint of the customer’s need. Others will define it based on their immediate challenge, however large or small it might be. And many more will define the problem as something involving their colleagues.

In other words, there are three ways we define a problem the workplace: from either the customer’s point-of-view, the individual, or the team. It could be the same fundamental problem and be discussed in completely different ways with no sense of connection.

This is true in relationships, too. And parenting. A child’s behavior can manifest in different forms from school to home but is always influenced by the same basic causal factors. Those factors aren’t easily identified and some practitioners give it a “catch-all” diagnosis like ADHD. This official-sounding acronym not only fails to give us a well-stated diagnosis, it occasionally leads to even more problems.  

What Is A Well-Stated Problem?

That’s the tricky aspect of Kettering’s axiom. When it comes to thinking about problems, we have to be careful to do so with structure and rigor. There is seldom a single root cause and seldom an easy fix.

As you may recall, this is one of the more important ideas from our coverage of Systems Thinking. So let’s use it to define what a “well-stated problem” is. A well-stated problem conveys an easily-tested causal structure that reliably explains observed patterns over time.  

The beauty here is that Kettering knew if a person could establish such, they could find five or ten solutions with ease. That’s what happens when we’ve truly stated a problem correctly. But how many of us define problems this way? Who among us are going to do a systems diagram of their life? And will anyone be truly objective in doing so?

I doubt it. We can all learn to do this but it takes a lot of effort. Thankfully, there is another tactic that can be much easier and just as effective.

What To Do When You Face Vague Problems 

In the non-emergency, non-extreme cases, it is often better to stop focusing on the problems and shift to solutions instead. Specifically through the frame of solutions-focused therapy. As featured by our authors in this week’s book, Switch, this is a fabulous practice centered on what’s known as The Miracle Question. This is the question that can unlock so much progress for a person and it goes something like this:  

“Can I ask you a sort of strange question? Suppose that you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometime, in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think, ‘Well, something must have happened—the problem is gone!’”

Such a question causes us to move away from the problems we’re experiencing and tilt our gaze towards the future. No more complaining, no more pain; we envision and often feel the solution in effect by playing out this scenario.

The power lies in the specificity. Note the operative phrase “what’s the first small sign … the problem is gone”. This thought experiment leads you to find an indicator that life is better. Whatever it may be, it will likely involve a small, tangible outcome that is in your control.

From there, you can reverse-engineer some solutions. You can begin with the end in mind.

Sometimes, these solutions will have nothing to do with the original problem. The ingenuity of the approach is that it can clarify what we’re really after. I don’t necessarily want to solve a particular problem; I just want things to be better! That outcome can be accomplished indirectly, side-stepping the initial problem completely. As the outcome is achieved by these other means, we discover what we thought was the problem wasn’t a problem at all.

To close, I wish to offer my own little axiom. Kettering is still as right as ever that a problem well-stated is a problem half-solved. But another approach, from solutions-focused therapy, can also work. So consider this idea, too, based on the tenets of The Miracle Question: a future well-stated is a problem half-solved.


Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash