The #1 reason organizations fail at problem-solving (and how business analysts can fix it)

Adriana Beal
Analyst’s corner
Published in
4 min readJul 31, 2021

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Photo by Jackson Simmer on Unsplash

The first step to mastering problem-solving is to ask the right questions.

Bad questions lead to bad decision-making. Without good questions, it’s almost impossible to find the best solutions to eliminate obstacles, open up new opportunities, and tackle complex business problems

Unfortunately, while this skill is recognized as the foundation for successful leadership, asking great questions is not natural for most of us. This why, despite all the advances in technology over the past decades, we continue to see so many IT and software projects wasting months and millions trying to solve the wrong problem.

But knowing the impact of poor questions is not enough. Until we learn how to ask effective questions, we won’t be able to avoid the endless cycle of piecemeal business solutions that fail to bring the expected ROI.

The good news is that we can improve the quality of our solutions by following three steps with huge impact on our thought process and problem-solving abilities.

1. Use this powerful starting point to frame your business questions

The best problem-solvers know to frame their questions starting with “How can we…” (the more natural form of the equally effective “How might we…”). They avoid structuring it as “How do we…” since this format of questioning changes the frame from examining the possibilities to one that puts too much emphasis on action at a time when we should be focusing on analyzing the problem.

Let’s say you’ve been asked to work on the requirements for a banking application to allow customers to check their account balance online.

The business question might initially be phrased as, “How can we give customers a convenient way to check their balance without having to go to a branch or ATM?”.

But you shouldn’t stop there. The idea is to write as many variations of the question as you possibly can. For example, “How can we make it as frictionless as possible for customers to check their balance from anywhere in the world?”, and even, “How can we eliminate the need for customers to check their balance altogether?”

The latter framing is important because it allows us to determine whether eliminating an activity may be even better than trying to improve it.

Consider the following scenario: the bank you’re working for only serves businesses whose payments are always scheduled ahead of time. The only reason for a customer to want to check their balance is to make sure the account has enough money to cover a scheduled expense such as payroll. If that’s the case, the business analyst might suggest an alternative solution: offer customers an option to sign up to an alert when their account won’t have sufficient funds to cover a scheduled expense.

Now, instead of having to perform a repetitive task every month, customers gain peace of mind knowing they don’t have to do anything unless they receive the alert. This superior solution wouldn’t be possible if the challenge hasn’t been reframed multiple times to uncover new angles.

2. Challenge your assumptions

Initial problem statements tend to come with assumptions that, if left unchallenged, will cause the best solutions to be ignored.

Going back to the online banking example, when examining the question, “How can we make it as frictionless as possible for customers to check their balance from anywhere in the world?”, in order to identify its underlying assumptions, you might ask, “What do we know to be true about a customer needing to check their balance from anywhere?”

The answer may go like this: “Well, we know that sometimes …”

Then you can start to question the identified assumptions. What if customers don’t care about knowing their exact balance, only whether they have enough to avoid overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees?

Now you are opening the solution space to include alternatives like the alert mentioned above, or a timely report automatically delivered by email so that customers don’t have to remember to check their balance each month.

3. Only start to look for solutions after you have a well-framed challenge

No matter how hard you try, you’ll never find the right answer until you’ve asked the right question. This is why it’s so important to go through steps 1 (ask as many variations of the “How can we…” question as possible) and 2 (challenge your assumptions) before kicking off a solution-finding process.

Once you have a well-framed and relevant challenge, then it is time to find a solution. To identify the best alternatives, it’s important to engage people from the widest possible range of disciplines, backgrounds, and experiences. Collaboration involving employees from various departments as well as customers and prospects will improve your chances of identifying the optimal solution.

Rather than rushing to solve every problem and risk being inundated by poorly defined challenges that invite low-value solutions, the top business analysts develop the valuable skill of asking better questions to improve efficiency, reduce risk, and drive sustainable success. By following the steps above, you’ll help your organization bring forward clearer, faster, and better solutions.

Interested in learning more about the art and science of asking effective questions?

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Adriana Beal
Analyst’s corner

Adriana helps innovation companies and startups gain business insight from their data and make better decisions. More at bealprojects.com