What’s the Problem? Getting it Right the First Time

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.”                                  – Peter Drucker

Few in either the for-profit or the non-profit sector would disagree that continuous improvement is key to growth, learning, and leading the way to incremental innovation. Our organizations are geared toward rapid response and driving results—quickly and efficiently. We charge our teams to think constantly about the next step and the one beyond it. But sometimes, in our haste to drive results quickly and efficiently, we neglect one of the critical keys to truly solving a problem. We forget to ask:

What, exactly, is the problem we are seeking to solve?

Too often, as many business experts will attest, we are distracted by a “downstream” problem rather than focusing on the root cause in the first place. Often, it takes small steps to actually accomplish something big. In the early 1980s, for example, in the South Sudan, thousands of people were infected with life-threatening symptoms due to the ingestion of the guinea worm, found in their water. In trying to solve the problem, companies worked on ways to treat the terrible symptoms of infection with pills and other interventions. Good money after bad was spent on trying to find the “cure” for the infection. But then, in 1986, the Atlanta-based Carter Center decided to work to eradicate the worm. They didn’t focus on the symptom, rather they focused on the cause. And they discovered it was the water itself that was causing the problem. And so they handed out water filters. Today, the guinea worm is all but eradicated.

Here at The Fedcap Group, our approach—always—is to bring together a diverse constituency and together dig into the problem and ask: What, exactly, is the problem we are seeking to solve? We wrangle questions that address the system, the environment, the societal norms and even the very tactical issues that with a precise intervention, can make a huge difference.  Solving the right problem can be the difference between making minimal short term changes in the lives of those we serve and making a profound difference that will impact generations.

This process is how we contributed to the improvement in the outcomes for youth transitioning out of foster care. We know that attending college is for most, the foundation for long term economic well-being.  We also know that for children not raised in the foster care system, the encouragement to go to college originates from their parents. We saw that very little was being done to help foster parents—the individuals who spend the most amount of time with young people in care— in their critical role as a cheerleader, guide, and educational advocate for college attendance and graduation.  As such, we created PrepNow!™, an innovative web-based curriculum that helps foster parents create a college-going culture in their home. We work closely with foster parents, helping them learn how to inspire youth to go to college, how to encourage, how to motivate and how to create a sense of all that is possible with a college education.

No matter how big or small the problem, we can save our precious resources of time and money by ensuring that we are focusing on the right problem.

How do you ensure that you are solving the right problem? As always, I welcome your thoughts.