Every field of human endeavour has problems, and the myriad problem solving approaches that have been identified through history reflect that diversity. Even within a field, such as non-profit governance, the variety of problems that come before a board of directors can be extremely diverse. Strategic, risk, financial, structural, logistical, human, technological, safety, policy, political, stakeholder, performance, timing, reputation, procedural and other problems, are littered throughout our board agendas.
Notwithstanding the qualitative differences between the various types of problems on our agendas, non-profit boards often resort to using a standard problem solving methodology, thus demonstrating the aphorism “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (see header image).
Improving our understanding of the types of problems we face would aid us in better defining any particular problem we need to solve. That in turn should point us to more suitable approaches to problem solving. Just as health practitioners need to provide the ‘right treatment to the right patient at the right time’, directors need to provide the ‘right solution methodology to the right problem at the right time’. This was Einstein’s point when he said “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it”.
Problem classification systems tend to be either very high level (e.g. structured Vs unstructured problems), or narrow-band (e.g. IT troubleshooting), and I have not yet located a taxonomy of problems which could be described as comprehensive. One response to that is to aggregate a collection of typologies, as illustrated in the chart below.
In the following chart, the debt owed by various problem solving models to the scientific method is suggested. These linear processes each propose a series of steps by which to understand the problem and then explore solutions.
Exploring problem and solution ‘spaces’
Exploring both problem and solution spaces has been ‘unpacked’ for us by various mechanisms and models over the years, and the juxtaposition of two such models in the chart below shows some of the parallels between organisational problem solving and design thinking.
When focusing on the problem space, problem analysis has its own set of filters and perspectives., some of which are highlighted in the next chart. The slider metaphor is used to hint that each attribute of the problem may be present to a greater or lesser degree.
Another approach to problem classification is to narrow the focus to a selection of the major types of problems encountered by directors, and acknowledge that this is only a very partial survey. As referenced in the title to this article, boards deal with both problems for governance, usually called ‘decision-making’ or the object of board deliberations, and problems of governance, related to the effectiveness of the processes and systems used by the board to perform its role. Of course, each of these problem types can also be described using perspectives such as those listed in the problem analysis chart above (e.g. complexity, scale, risk profile, etc.).
Often when compliance issues are identified by regulators such as the ACNC, ASIC, or Registrars of incorporated associations, the real problem turned out to be governance processes (problems of governance) rather than the issue on which a poor decision was made (or neglected).
Approaches to problem solving
Just as there are many types of problems, each possessing different qualities and characteristics, there is a multitude of methods, algorithms and models available from which we can choose a suitable problem solving approach. Regrettably, we don’t always identify the most appropriate approach. Consequently, our efforts may fall short of a durable solution.
A separate typology is required for problem solving approaches, encompassing linear, cyclic, and multi-dimensional models and methods. The selection of approaches illustrated in the next two charts only scratches the surface of the range available.
The problem cube offers another way of classifying problem types, and brings together a generic typology, various organisational foci, and a few of the qualities or attributes that may exist in greater or lesser degree depending on the type of problem and circumstances being dealt with.
Another aspect of approach relates to the disposition or orientation of the problem solver/s. The following chart seeks to contrast conventional ‘inside the box’ thinking (problem mindset) with the more collaborative and solution oriented thinking (solution mindset) recommended for best practice governance and management processes.
When your problem solving process invites you to define the problem, consider the type of problem you are faced with before identifying the most suitable methods, orientation and approaches to solving it. Not every problem is a nail.