Before attempting to solve a problem, we must first understand it

Our realities are complex, and most often, so are the problems we work on. This can be confusing and paralysing, which hampers effectiveness. What can help is to break down the problem into smaller, manageable parts. Here are some techniques that can help simplify complex problems for better understanding and more effective problem solving:

1. Define the problem based on its effect, not the process.


Version 1 focused on process: The sales training for new sales agents is organised over a span of 6 months. The sessions are distributed weekly. The content is delivered in such a sequence that only in month six do they learn how to work with the client database. … This leads to 90% of junior sales agents not sealing any deals in their first 5 months on the job. 

VS Version 2 focused on the problem and effect: 90% of junior sales agents do not seal any deals in their first 5 months because they do not know how to use the client database.

The benefit of stating the effect of the problem clearly is that it informs immediately who gets affected, how high the risks can be, and it indicates the problem more specifically. This helps to tone down the perceived complexity and difficulty of a problem.

2. Build an issue tree

Draw out a visual that outlines a tree with roots, a trunk, and branches. At its roots, define the cause of the issue. The trunk is the visible problem. The branches are the impact, effects or parts of the problem that can be addressed separately and more quickly than trying to fix the problem as a whole in one go.

The most obvious part of the tree is the trunk, which most often is a complaint someone has raised. This is what affects productivity, effectiveness, profit, or the team overall. i.e. Junior sales agents are not closing sales until the 6th month on the job.

For the root cause, it is suggested that you ask “Why” about 5 times, starting with the trunk issue. ie: Why aren’t sales agents closing deals? Because they don’t make effective sales calls. Why? Because they cannot access the client database. Why? Because they don’t know how to operate the system. Why? Because they are not trained in how to operate it until month 6 in the onboarding. Why? Because the training used was designed both for onboarding and as a refresher.

Not all issues would need 5 Whys – you can be on your 3rd when you reached the root issue.

For the branches, you can also break down the problem into: who are the groups affected, what does this problem cause to other departments or areas of activity, what are the main risks that this problem causes to the company? Write down all of the information that indicates the ramifications, effects and impact of the problem.

You can work up and down the tree to refine and adjust your explanation until you find it clear.