Solve for X, Not Y: How Problem Scoping Will Lead You to the Right Solution
BY Margaret Otto and Michael Padgeon
October 13, 2021
October 13, 2021

Let’s take a walk down memory lane and hark back to high school science class (don’t worry, there won’t be any pop quizzes involved). You might remember a little thing called the scientific method, a technique designed to construct and test a hypothesis. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “the process of observing, asking questions, and seeking answers through tests and experiments is not unique to any one field of science.” 

In fact, the scientific method doesn’t have to be relegated strictly to the scientific realm at all. The practice of peeling back layers and digging deep to better understand a given problem is critical to success in the business world, too. We call it problem scoping.

One of the keys to our problem-scoping process is patience—all too often, we see organizations’ eagerness to solve a problem take over and they rush to the finish line, skipping crucial steps that would make for a smoother journey. 

Albert Einstein once famously asserted that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would “spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” This cuts to the very core of problem scoping, and highlights the importance of doing your due diligence upfront—the ruminating, analyzing, and hypothesizing—which will ensure you’re focused on the right pain points. 

That’s where we come in: to help you cut to the core of your specific business problem before any of the real legwork has begun. The result? You have a clearer understanding of where the actual challenges and opportunities lie, and we can do a better job of helping you capitalize on them.

Although no two problems are exactly alike, we’ve implemented a few universal methods that work in a range of scenarios and for a number of different stakeholders. Here’s a glimpse into Navigate’s approach, from crafting the perfect problem statement to defining what success looks like.

Problem Statements: Putting Pen to Paper

In many cases, the problem you think you have isn’t actually what you should be solving for in the first place.

For example, let’s say your organization is losing customers, and as a result, revenue is slipping. Sounds like a classic case of poor customer experience, right? Not necessarily. There could be several reasons for this dip in revenue, and it’s important to drill down into the details to uncover the root cause. Are poor supply chain practices causing missed deliveries? Is a confusing ordering platform to blame? Or perhaps customer service associates don’t have the necessary information to answer customer questions about their order. Peeling back the layers to truly understand the problem you are trying to solve will make all the difference when it comes to designing an appropriate solution.

Cue the problem statement, which we define as a specific statement about an area of concern, a difficulty your organization is experiencing that needs to be eliminated, or a condition that needs to be improved upon that includes a description of the pain and what would happen if it wasn’t fixed. That last tidbit—deducing what would happen if you continue down your current path—is an integral but often overlooked consideration. It puts your problem into perspective by illuminating the impact it could have on your business, and the bottom line, if left unsolved. 

What you wind up with should be concise, specific, and importantly, measurable. The strongest problem statements incorporate measurable aspects of both degree and frequency of the problem as it stands. They are also clear-cut, focusing your thinking, research, and solutions toward a single population or issue. What we bring to the table is an outside perspective, which can shine a light on issues and roadblocks that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Keep in mind that nine times out of 10, you won’t write a picture-perfect problem statement on your first try. Problem scoping is an iterative process requiring lots of refining, redirecting, and importantly, time: Slowing down to properly define the problem will actually accelerate your impact, because your solution will target the right issues from the start. You’ll also need to collect data and input from multiple sources—you can’t solve problems in a vacuum, and there are typically a range of stakeholders involved, especially in large and complex organizations. 

Grab Your Easel: Elements of a Problem-Scoping Canvas

If your problem statement is the beginning of the end of your problem, the problem-scoping canvas helps you draft a roadmap to your desired solution. At this point, you know what you’re trying to solve, but you still need to fill in a few blanks.

One element we focus on is impact: Where is the problem observed and how does it impact the business or customers? All successful strategies can be traced back to tangible business outcomes, so this is an area you’ll need to fully understand if your solution is going to have its intended effect. 

Another element revolves around stakeholders; specifically, who are they and how are they affected? Think beyond leadership and management and consider those on the front lines doing the day-to-day work. We bring them into the fold during the scoping and canvassing phases to ensure you’re getting a range of perspectives. Whatever solution you land on will undoubtedly affect frontline workers the most, making their insights and experiences truly invaluable.

Finally, let’s talk about metrics, which will help you answer the most important question of all: How will we know we have solved the problem and how will we measure success? Perhaps success for your organization is reaching an 85% adoption rate of your new tech platform by a certain date, or maybe your goal is to decrease decision-making time from three weeks to three days. Regardless of what benchmarks you’re striving to hit, the key is that they are clearly defined, measurable, and linked to the business impact of the problem, e.g., loss of revenue, low NPS scores, etc.

Problem scoping is an investment, but it’s one that will save you oodles of time and energy in the long run. It is also an iterative process that requires critical thinking, collaboration, and data mining. In order to land on the right solution, you must put in the time upfront to pinpoint the problem you’re up against. And when you’re not sure whether you should be solving for X, Y, or none of the above, we can help you find the opportunity hidden in your toughest business problems.