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The Current

How To Solve the Right Problem

Danielle Short /
Solving IT Problems

At this point, there is little that technology is incapable of doing. We can automate just about any process if an application doesn’t exist today – build it from scratch, and with AI and machine learning we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible. New technologies can be developed and scaled quickly, solving problems for millions in a few short years, months, or even days.

With technology, we can solve problems- we already know this. But how do we know if we are solving the right problems?

 
We are currently in the midst of an unprecedented rate of change in technology, and with that, the stakes for project success have never been so high. Often these projects manifest as a fundamental shift in how a business operates. Those that will be successful have also moved culturally towards critical thinking and actual problem-solving. At the end of the day, your technology is only as good as the people designing, building, and maintaining it.

Something many enterprises have struggled to understand is the theory behind challenging conventional norms.

I’m a big fan of Harvard Business Review and recently had time to catch up on their podcasts. One stood out- The Secret to Better Problem Solving with Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg. In it, Wedellsborg discusses an article he wrote to enable businesses and employees to focus on solving the right problems instead of jumping straight to a solution. Something many enterprises have struggled to understand is the theory behind challenging conventional norms. Challenging standards and executing ideas are two very different things. There is a significant difference between working to succeed and working not to fail.

One example Wedellsborg discussed is animal adoption. Over 3 million dogs enter shelters every year, but only half of them get adopted. The problem people have been looking at for decades is – how do we get more dogs adopted? Then a couple of years ago Lori Weise saw an entirely different problem.

The problem shelters should have been solving was never the adoption rate. They should have been addressing the number of dogs entering the shelter. A new perspective then brought up a logical question: what approaches could be taken to keep these dogs with their families?

The solution- a Shelter Intervention Program that helps families overcome problems causing them to give up their pets. Maybe it was a deposit at a new building they couldn’t afford, vet services that they couldn’t find, or just further education around how to contend with a new furry edition to the family. By preventing more dogs from entering the shelter, Lori brought down the cost per animal nearly 20% within the first year.

As Wedellsborg mentions, this example is notable because there’s no technology involved – just one individual changing her approach to solve the right problem.

The simplicity of this solution is intriguing. The heart of great problem solving is curiosity, and curiosity requires courage. It compels us to ask “what-if” and not confine to “the way it’s always been done.” It requires the space to challenge the status quo and the time to explore other avenues. There is almost always more than one solution for a problem, but if you’re not solving the right problem, none of your solutions matter.

Technology can do almost anything we can imagine, but it can’t critically think for us.

What challenge is your organization trying to tackle? Take a step back from the solution and look at the problem itself. Try to see it from another perspective. Ask hard questions and challenge the status quo. Technology can do almost anything we can imagine, but it can’t critically think for us. That critical thinking and ability to question is likely the most valuable asset you bring as a technologist.

Curious to learn more? Check out the full podcast here

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