Daniel Hummerdal is a world-leading health and safety innovator with deep experience in finding new and more functional ways to improve safety. A founder of Safety Differently, Daniel begun his career in aviation, before training to become an organisational psychologist. He has since worked as a consultant in high risk industries in France and Australia. His goal is to facilitate the development of better solutions in which people’s potential is engaged and realised.
We will be featuring Daniel’s articles over the next four weeks.
In organisational life, problems are everywhere. But ways to define them, or good methods for pinpointing their qualities, are far from widespread. What first seems to be the problem is often just the symptoms of a deeper problem or problems. Or, put differently, we rarely put in the required cognitive effort to build an understanding of a problem that allows us to identify solutions or improvement that can address the situation.
Consider the following statement that was presented to me by a group of mine workers:
‘The mine has inadequate lighting’
While this problem statement wasn’t false or or otherwise misleading, it was a statement that didn’t have any levers to pull, or even guidance as to what was needed next.
The group had read 30-40 comments that I had collected from them and their colleagues about the experiences of driving on the mine site. I challenged the group. I said that based on the statement they had come up with, I couldnt’ tell who is having the problem. Is it everyone? I don’t know when it is occurring or the frequency of it. Is it everywhere? Give me some size, locations. And explain to me in the statement why this problem matters.
I asked them to go back to the original comments to find out more details about the problem and rewrite the statement. 15 minutes later they came back with this:
‘When driving at night, in the east part of the mine, truck and grader drivers struggle to see rocks, signage and other vehicles, due to dust, lighting conditions, and the layout of the mine. This negatively impacts communication, productivity, and safety.’
Now, the statement had some zest. Now, I could almost smell a solution. It was every bit as true as the previous statement the group had come up with, but now it had edges and shapes. It wasn’t perfect perhaps but it was certainly more workable. And the group was smiling, as if they had wrestled and won. There was ownership emerging.
Moving closer to problems, and defining them, is a critical step in moving beyond complaints, and moving towards a solution space. Unfortunately, there are many workshop exercises and recipes for how to make problem statements which are about keeping definitions brief (max four words, one sentence, etc) or otherwise to define things at an abstract level. While there is something to be said about trying to be concise, it is not the brevity that will allow subsequent ideation to flow. And the abstraction ambition is highly likely to paralyze what needs to come next. The purpose of the problem statement is to provide a clear an unambiguous target onto which people can project their ideas, in an as focussed way as possible.
So, here are some critical questions to be addressed when working on understanding
What is the problem?
Who has the problem?
Where does the problem occur?
When does the problem occur?
How often does the problem occur?
What causes the problem?
What does the problem impact?
There may be many other ways of getting to the kernel(s) of a problem. For example I often look for the activities involved or impacted, or the goals and ambitions that are constrained by the problem – questions that may not necessarily be covered by the above list. But holding on to the basic questions of who, what, when, how and so on is a good pathway to start moving closer to the problem, rather than (staying) further away.
Article orginally published on Owhiro.
What is Owhiro?
Owhiro explores the relationship between the potential of humans, and their work. It looks at what is currently going on in workplaces, ventures into what could be going on, and discusses methods for evolving work practices so that more of people’s potential is realised at work.