This Question Will Make You a Better Problem Solver

Think about the last big problem you needed to solve.

If you’re like most, you likely laid out the facts in front of you, asked yourself a series of questions tied to the problem, and used your analytical skills to determine the best solution.

But, what if you weren’t asking yourself the right set of questions before you decided on an answer?

In recent months, the Mission Partners’ team has been advising a university, a hospital system, and a nonprofit training institute through some of their most pressing problems. In each situation, the organization had set out to build service offerings that would further benefit the community. But, we quickly found that each group’s approach to solving the problem was out of sync with its mission. Instead of thinking about what their communities needed most—and then exploring how they could best fill that need—they were looking at their problems solely through the lens of what they, as organizations, needed most.

When it comes to solving big problems, if we start with what we need and then look for someone else to help us get there, we’ve got a much slimmer chance of making meaningful progress than when we start with what others need and then create a solution that works for all sides.

Albert Einstein said, “if I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” In fact, defining the problem by asking why you are addressing it is far more important than the actual solution. And, to effectively define any problem, you must spend time thinking about it from perspectives other than your own.

Think about it: How many times have you had the “perfect solution” to a problem, until you put it to practice and realized the solution either couldn’t be implemented or addressed the wrong problem? I suspect if you went back and analyzed why any solution failed, it was because you hadn’t adequately thought about the problem through the lens of your end user.

At Mission Partners, we go through exercises of problem solving with our clients every day. Here is one question we attempted to answer in 2013, when working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

Question: Why do we need a better path for young people aging out of foster care?

Answer: Because every day, young people are aging out of care on their 18th birthday without the skills, support systems, or sense of self that is required for them to be successful in life.

Question: Why don’t we focus on providing those skills before they age out of care?

Answer: Because most young people—in foster care or otherwise—aren’t ready to be self-sufficient adults by their 18th birthday. They need to get beyond their 18th birthday to be fully equipped with the skills needed for success.

This last answer raised a deeper question: Were we solving for re-imagining the foster care system as it was, or re-imagining how the foster care system should work—with far more supports beyond a young person’s 18th birthday than previously expected?

By asking ourselves why until we reached the root cause of the problem, we were able to build the Success Beyond 18 campaign strategy with much deeper staying power. (The campaign is now heralded in child welfare circles as a key driver in the passage of Public Law 113-183 – The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act.)  And far beyond  this one campaign, it’s a process we know works. Our beloved “But Why” exercise is drawn from the famous Five Whys problem-solving technique developed at Toyota and employed in Six Sigma.

“Design in Everything We Do”

Spending time defining the problem, with the end user’s needs in mind before your own, and with focus on the longer-term issues rather than the near-term issues, is also the basis for the design thinking process.

Design thinking is grounded in the idea that there is design in everything we do, and in everything we touch. We love design thinking because it leads with empathy. Through a series of exploratory steps, it allows groups to challenge assumptions and examine root problems through the lens of the end user. While the process is often a multi-month exploration, the basics of design thinking can also be applied to every day problem solving.

Here are three tips to put you into a design thinking mindset.

Interested in learning more about the design thinking process? Click here to attend one of our upcoming Design Thinking Days at Mission Partners.

  1. Step 1. Clear your mind. Start with a blank sheet of white paper. Think about one person who represents your ideal end user. The kind of person for whom you or your organization exists to serve. Draw them. Then, challenge yourself to think about what matters most to them: their life priorities, their biggest challenges, their road blocks, and their aspirations. Where are they trying to go? Why are they unable to get there? Document all you can on that piece of paper.
  1. Step 2. Explore your problem from a new perspective. Reflect on your drawing, share it with your team, and compare what you uncovered against the problem you believe needs solving. How does that sheet of paper change how you think about the problem? And if you were to put that person at the center of your strategy, what else might change?


  1. Step 3. Ask why. And then ask it again. To get to the heart of the problem that really needs solving, don’t just ask yourself “why?”once. As we outlined above, ask yourself “why?” multiple times, and with each answer you write down, you’ll get closer to the root of the problem.

Once you’ve uncovered the why, you have a much better chance of defining how to solve a problem–and that’s where so much of the magic happens.

Learn more and try design thinking for yourself at one of our upcoming Design Thinking Days, to be hosted in our soon-to-be-unveiled Innovation Lab.  Click here to receive an invitation, including an exclusive discount offer to our 2018 workshops.