“Do you see what I see?” What constitutes a problem anyway?

Optical illusion: Perspectives: Two faces or a goblet?
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In business, we often point at examples of “problems” and “problematic situations” as if they should be universally known and agreed upon. Certainly, if revenue is dropping, customers are leaving and there’s not enough money to pay staff wages then it’s likely that there would be fairly unanimous agreement that something has to be done and there are clearly a whole set of “problems”! Yet, most of the day to day situations we find ourselves in are far more subtle and nuanced, and defining and pinpointing issues can be much more challenging . Different stakeholders may interpret a situation very differently, viewing particular aspects of that situation  more or less significantly than we do.

 

Two examples really brought this idea to life for me, and being from the UK, these are of course weather related (if you’ve never been to the UK, talking about weather is like a national sport!).  During September last year, I attended the fantastic BA Summit Southern Africa in Cape Town.  While I was there I was able to see some of the sights, and catch up with my friends and contacts at IIBA SA. Being a British person, I would start just about every conversation with small talk about the weather.  I’d drone on and on (boring even myself) about how we have so much rain, and how it’s great to be somewhere so sunny…

 

I was floored when a friend of mine said (with complete respect and rapport) “If only we could find a way of swapping your rain for our sun”. They explained that Cape Town is suffering a severe water shortage, with a lack of rain in the winter, and a real chance that the reservoirs will simply run dry.  Water rationing is now in place, with calculations being regularly updated over when “day zero” will be reached—the day that domestic taps are shut off. Wow. Clearly, and quite understandably, my friends in Cape Town have a very different perspective on rain, and I felt pretty insensitive when I realised what I’d said!  That single experience led me to limit my water usage as much as I could. It also made me think differently about the amount of rain that we get in the UK.

 

What’s Your (And My) Problem?

Whether something is perceived as problematic by a particular stakeholder is likely to depend on what they see and what they know.  This includes factors such as:

 

  • Information & experience: What they know
  • Background & culture: What they’ve experienced in the past
  • Perspective: What they see
  • Micro/macro: Whether they are looking ‘big picture’ or ‘detail’
  • Outcome: Their perception of the outcome and the impact on them

 

As another, far less serious example, take the recent snowfall in the UK.  If we ask a question “is the snowfall problematic?” to a range of people we’d likely get a range of responses.  In fact, if snow fell in your area your response might depend on whether you had planned to travel, whether you could work from home and so forth.  If we asked a child whose school had closed (allowing them to spend the day sledging), they might not see the problem at all!  A family due to go on holiday whose flights were cancelled might have a very different view.

 

What This Means For Business and Business Analysis

We probably all spend time defining and refining problems, opportunities, needs and requirements. We use techniques like problem statements, five whys, fishbone diagrams and perhaps even multiple cause diagrams or causal loop diagrams.  It is inevitable that conflict will emerge, and sometimes this might come from people holding different perceptions of the situation—people seeing the same thing (snow) but drawing a different conclusion (missed holiday/sledging!). There is a lot to be said in bringing these perspectives together to get a more systemic appreciation of the situation and to overcome our individual collective ‘blind spots’

 

In fact, much as people have blind-spots in the way that they perceive situations (I had not often thought seriously about water conservation until the experience I mentioned above), organisations have blind spots too.  History is littered with companies that were once household names that couldn’t seem to see the importance of an innovative competitive product or technology.  They didn’t perceive the threat, so they didn’t act—or they acted too late.

 

As analysts and catalysts for positive change, we can utilise our holistic and systemic tools to help synthesis our views and co-create a deeper understanding that is bigger than the sum of its parts.  We can encourage action, experimentation and learning.  Done well, this leads to better outcomes, which can only be a good thing!

 


PS: I read recently that Day Zero has been pushed out to 2019. Wishing my friends and contacts in Cape Town a very wet winter/rainy season, and I hope the water restrictions are lifted soon 🙂


What are your views on problem solving and differing perspectives that exist on problems? I’d love to hear your thoughts.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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designexemplars

Adrian, one thing you did not mention when taking about getting stakeholders together to find the real problem is the relative influence of those stakeholders. For example, as a business analyst I would be far more inclined to listen to the CEO than to a disgruntled mailroom worker. Similarly, the manager of a department has more influence, and for me more weight, than his/her minions.

This is not to say that the CEO and the manager are always right, but as the destiny of the company rests with these people, we as business analysts should be listening to them.

Yes, I know, it is sometimes difficult for business analysts to have access to the CEO. But that simply means we need find ways to get it.

James Robertson

Adrian Reed

Hi James, thanks for the comment. You make a very valid point, and this highlights the importance of good stakeholder categorisation and management/engagement too. As you quite rightly say, some will have more power/influence, and it is crucial that we identify the ‘key players’. This isn’t to say that other voices shouldn’t be listened to… so often people need to be heard, but all of this is in the context of a wider stakeholder engagement strategy.

Thanks again for the thought provoking comment!

Hope you’re well & hope to catch up soon — Adrian

Victoria Roza

I agree – helping users cultivate systems thinking is key here. Awareness of the interactions at different systemic levels can greatly improve brainstorming results. It’s also useful when evaluating solutions, since the best solution from the standpoint of the overall system/process may be less than ideal at a local level.

Adrian Reed

Absolutely agree Victoria, systems thinking and practice is crucial here. Particularly in “messy” situations where there may be different interpretations of what the system of interest exists for (which affects who the customer/s are or would be). Tricky!

Thanks again Victoria, I hope you found the article interesting.

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