The right time to define a solution

Some people are often advised to not solutionise—that is, don’t jump to conclusions about how to solve a problem. Instead they are urged to make sure they understand the problem properly; defining the solution comes later, possibly from or with other people.

In one organisation where I worked various representatives from around the business would regularly solutionise around the tools created by the technical team. They would say “We need a button that does this,” or “We need a new screen that looks like this,” and the tech team became accustomed to asking, “What problem are you trying to solve?” Often there was a more appropriate and non-technical solution. On one memorable occasion the Head of Marketing asked for budget approval to introduce a work tracking application at the cost of tens of thousand of pounds. His IT counterpart told him to use sticky notes on a whiteboard.

However, there is always a point where we have to specify a solution. If we don’t do that then we won’t deliver anything.

The world of Design Thinking gives us a nice image for creating a solution: start with a problem, explore and widen your thinking with many ideas, then narrow down your options until you get to the most appropriate solution.

As you might imagine from this widening-then-narrowing image, some kinds of people might be better at generating the options, while others might be better at narrowing them down. It also shows us that creating a solution isn’t black and white. As we narrow down our options and ideas we are being increasingly specific about our solution, so there’s a sliding scale between “no solution” and “a very specific solution”.

Sometimes the process might be driven by a date—if we need to be clear on a solution by this point, then we need to start narrowing down our options by some particular earlier point. When we get to that particular earlier point the instruction of “don’t solutionise” isn’t helpful—now is the time we need to actively be more and more specific about what our solution entails.

“Don’t solutionise” is a good recommendation if we mean “don’t identify a solution prematurely“. Because there will come a time when having that solution is essential.

Photo by Edit Dora Rey