Solve problems, before thinking in solutions

After a couple of events a very important thing became clear to me. It started when I read the introduction of the book ‘Solving Complex Problems’, then the pieces fell into place.


When solving complex problems, we mean problems that do not have a single solution available (or perhaps none at all) due to the level of complexity. People seem to have a built-in habit of immediately thinking about and expressing a potential solution the moment a problem is presented. A step toward dealing with a group of people with different objectives who focus on a specific solution, is to make the problem very explicit. In this way, causes and effects in the problem field can be analysed.

The meeting

While attending a meeting where my role was only to observe, I realized that what I learned was very useful. There were 4 people involved in this meeting and the goal was to get the technical specs for the IT manufacturers to build the automatic gate for a factory terrain.

At first it sounds like there was a solution and the problem was not that complex, but soon I found out is was more intricate than I thought. For example; what if this system malfunctions? How reliable is the license plate recognition? Where to store the data? What to do when an emergency occurs?

The board decided that it had to be an automatic solution in order to eliminate the costs of the doorman and security personnel. We soon found out that the specs were not explicit enough to start the next phase.

How to keep focus

To be honest, I’m not really good in keeping my attention and focus in meetings which take longer than an hour and with more than 3 people involved.

But soon, I started to recognize patterns in the way people were contributed to the meeting. There was one guy, who came up with a simple solution: “get the poortman back”. Normally he would annoy me, but this time I found out that he was a very important contributor to this meeting. Not because of his solution, but because of the possible problems he described.

I started to draw 2 vertical lines and divided my notes into 3 columns. The first column adressed the ‘Cause’, the second one the ‘Effect’ which where part of the problem and the third one the ‘Solution”.

When someone was talking, I decided for myself if he was coming up with a problem, a solution or both. If it was a solution, which problem is he trying to solve? Probably he is addressing the effect of the problem, which made me think about the cause of the problem. If this problem might influence the specs to the Manufactures’ (our Goal), it was a reason to address this effect and to discuss it further until we knew everything about the cause and the possible effects. Questions included: When does it (this cause) happens? How often does it happen? Where does it happen? What are the effects? Are they effects of the problem?

If the questions cannot be answered in the meeting, you have to turn them into tasks and assign them to a member of the staff.


This problem-solution gives a nice guideline and enables you to keep better track of the meeting. When meetings escalate most of the time it’s because the people are defending their solutions. Stay focused on the problem and you will avoid these discussions.

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