First, Clearly Diagnose (Define; Identify; Clarify) the Problem – Then, and Only Then, Design the Solution

First, read these excerpts and points from Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy:  The Difference and Why It Matters:

A leader’s most important responsibility is identifying the biggest challenges to forward progress and devising a coherent approach to overcoming them.

A good strategy does more than urge us forward toward a goal or vision. A good strategy honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced and provides an approach to overcoming them.

…the term “strategy” should mean a cohesive response to an important challenge. Unlike a stand-alone decision or a goal, a strategy is a coherent set of analyses, concepts, policies, arguments, and actions that respond to a high-stakes challenge.

…strategy focuses and coordinates efforts to achieve a powerful competitive punch or problem-solving effect.  Bad strategy tends to skip over pesky details such as problems.

• The four major hallmarks of bad strategy:  #2 — Failure to face the challenge.

• The centrality of the kernel.  The kernel of a strategy contains three elements:
• #1  A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge.
• #2  A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge.
• #3  A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy.

And this (from the “first Google response” to the search term:  “strategy define”):

Strategy:  A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.

And now, this:

The classic approach to persuasion is Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.  It has five elements, but it boils down to two:  Problem, Solution.  From the Wikipedia page:

Attention: Hey! Listen to me, you have a PROBLEM!
Satisfaction: But, I have a SOLUTION!


In the world of business, we have had kind of a run on the “solutions” end of things.  Many companies put “solutions” in their very name, and many others find a way to offer “solutions” in their promises to customers.

This is a very good thing to offer – solutions.  And until we have solutions, and implement them (back to the centrality of execution), we will not move forward.

But there is a very important – make that crucial — prior step.  Before there can be solutions, there needs to be a very clear, a crystal clear, and absolute accurate diagnosis of, and understanding of, the problem(s).

So, whatever else you do in your business life, spend a hefty chunk of time on this:  “what is the problem we’re dealing with right now?”  Until you know, with precision, the answer to that question, you should not even begin thinking about “what is the solution?”

If strategy leads to a plan of action, (“a set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy”), it really does matter to know just what the issue is that you are dealing with with your plan of action.

First:  what is your problem?
And then, and only then:  What is the solution? 


3 thoughts on “First, Clearly Diagnose (Define; Identify; Clarify) the Problem – Then, and Only Then, Design the Solution

  1. It’s an excellent synopsis of an enjoyable book. The challenge with Rumelt’s idea of having a ‘crystal clear’ idea of the problem before designing a solution is usually (always) this is not how we find solutions in the real world. And it’s certainly not (almost always) how people in real businesses work.

    Real people stumble towards solutions. They try out something and it doesn’t work, so they try something else, perhaps they copy someone else’s idea or buy a product to solve their problem. And so it goes, lots of experiments until they find a solution that solves the problem they first noticed.

    It’s only at this point, with the problem solved, that they find out whether their solution works for other people, It’s pretty easy to solve something only to discover that people don’t value your solution. Or find out that someone else has solved the original problem better than you have. There is a competition between ideas, problems and solutions.

    In the early days of personal computing there were tens, perhaps hundreds of attempts at building operating systems. Many solved the operating system problem, but some solved it better than others. Those that survived, thrived and eventually dominated were not necessarily the best at solving the problem in the way that engineers might have considered it, but they did manage to solve new problems, like ‘does everyone else use the same operating system’ which was best solved by Microsoft with DOS and then Windows. They stumbled upon the ‘real’ problem.

    If you wait until you have a ‘crystal clear’ idea of the problem and solution, you may never do anything. Or you may do something too late or something that is already obsolete by the time you’ve finished. The true nature of strategy is to get somewhere better in the future, and that requires imagination (before the event) and continual adaptation (after you start work). The smartest innovators, and the smartest strategists know this, they know that they have to make strategy up as they go along, because no strategy is an island.

  2. Max,

    Great! comment, and reminder.

    I agree… and yet, I also think that there are times and issues where a problem must be very clearly grasped/defined/diagnosed…

    But, you are certainly right, in many instances, we “”stumble toward solutions.” And so we need to “champion” such stumbling, confident that this will lead us to the solutions we need.

    Maybe this partly has to do with the type of issue a leadership team is dealing with.

    I appreciate your well-written, thoughtful addition to this challenge.


  3. I ‘stumbled’ onto these comments on problem definition and clarifying and find them interesting. The ‘stumbling’ towards solutions of course can be appreciated and understood because it’s what people do and what happens in a large population. However I do believe that the individual would be best served if he or she were to begin with clear problem definition and analysis and then look for solutions. Problem analysis will go a long way towards finding solutions. By all means embrace ‘stumbling’ but most of us would be well served to spend more time defining and clarifying the problem and then we’d require less time ‘stumbling’ around for solutions.

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