What problem are you trying to solve?

I love this question. It’s a great tool for quickly zeroing in on whatever it is that you are trying to achieve. It is also a powerful way of uncovering a lack of alignment, enabling progress to then be made towards a common goal. Frequently leaders see and prioritise different problems and this question helps to surface these differences. It’s a great thing to have different perspectives. But what is not so great is thinking everyone is on the same page when they are not.

Identifying the problem to be solved is at the core of strategy. If you’re as fascinated by strategy as I am, I highly recommend: Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. In this book Rumelt talks about the kernel of good strategy – at the heart of which is a diagnosis of what is really going on. In business we are often too quick to get started on the action, spending way too little time identifying the problem. Once the problem has been identified, working out the next steps to identifying the approach to solving it is relatively straightforward.

Albert Einstein once 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 order to solve a problem, you first really need to understand it well” – Boyan Slat.

Problem identification and solving are also right at the core of innovation. What prompted me to write about this subject today was reading an interesting article by Boyan Slat, a young inventor and entrepreneur who is the CEO and Founder of a Non Profit called The Ocean Cleanup.

Slat is an inspiring leader who believes that “technology is the most potent agent of change. It is an amplifier of our human capabilities. Whereas other change-agents rely on reshuffling the existing building blocks of society, technological innovation creates entirely new ones, expanding our problem-solving toolbox.”

Technology brings a huge amount of leverage to the problems we point it at – but this leverage makes it doubly important that we understand those problems. Slat and the Ocean Cleanup’s desire to go deeper into understanding the problem led to a multi year research program that mapped the world’s rivers. This week they released the insights from their research which confirmed that 1,000 rivers account for nearly 80% of global riverine plastic emissions into the ocean.

Problem diagnosis, strategy and innovation are intrinsically connected

These insights and research are shaping the strategy for The Ocean Cleanup, which started with the ambitious goal of catching and collecting the waste in the ocean, and has now shifted to targeting the 1,000 rivers identified. Now the problem is better understood, technology is able to be pointed in a laser like way at this problem.

Being crystal clear on the problem to be solved is a powerful strategy shaper. This clarity can then power the innovation needed to deliver on that strategy.