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Group Flow: Redefining the Problem


Tue Oct 04 2016

Group Flow: Redefining the Problem

In the previous blog post, I provided two simple methods for ensuring a group is looking at the right focus rather than floundering to solve a symptom of the real problem. In this installment, I’ll address methods to identify the focus that will help facilitate more innovative and elegant solutions. 

Case in Point 

Several years ago, Heathrow Airport was confronted with a problem: lack of parking at one of its terminals. Traffic constantly backed up onto the main highway, delaying and frustrating passengers. Heathrow execs began scouting locations for an additional parking structure. One member of the design committee brought in an outside expert in thinking skills to see if there were other options. As they examined the issue, the team soon realized that traffic wasn’t due to lack of parking spots, but due to restricted flow of cars in and out of the existing structure.  


“Increase rate of traffic flow” became the focus, making the solution quite obvious. An additional entrance and exit to the existing structure was added. Traffic ceased to back up onto the highway, and the project cost was a fraction of building an additional structure. This example illustrates why identifying the real problem and real goal is an important piece of the process—and can often lead to a solution on its own.  

Groups working together on projects need to consider all relevant products, processes, and people. Don’t settle for the first definition of a problem or situation; instead, experiment with the following methods. Here’s how: 

Cut Out Part of the Initial Problem Statement 

Perhaps your problem is keeping in touch with sales partners in different time zones. If the time zone portion of the statement is removed, the focus might become: “How to make relationships with partners timeless?” 

Divide the Problem Statement 

Let’s consider the problem: “How to improve customer service complaint response time?” This could be divided into different time segments, yielding focus statements such as: 

  • “How to delight customers when they contact us with complaints?” 

  • “How to entertain customers while they are waiting for a response?” 

Expand Your Thinking  

Expand your thinking to explore areas of focus where innovation and creativity can improve or transform the product or service—not just solve an existing problem. An easy trick to do this is to avoid focus statements that begin with “how to…” or “how do we…” format. Ask for “new ideas” instead.  


For example, consider the focus statement, “How can we reduce paperwork?” An alternative statement may be: 

  • “New ideas around automation” 

  • “New ideas around process control” 

  • “New ideas around data collection” 

  • “New ideas around performance evaluations” 

Narrow the Focus 

A more narrow focus, particularly on big questions (Think: curing cancer) can help pinpoint solutions. To narrow your focus, ask questions like: 

  • “Why is this important?” 

  • “What is stopping us?” 

  • “What are the contributing factors?”

Consider the problem: “How can we improve employee morale?” Some narrowing questions and answers might be: 

  • “Why is this important?” It would increase productivity and reduce turnover. 

  • “What is stopping us?” Funding for morale events. 

  • “What are the contributing factors?” Employees don’t feel appreciated or understand how they fit into the system.

With these considerations in place, a new focus statement can bubble to the surface: 

  • “Ways to increase productivity” 

  • “Ways to reduce turnover” 

  • “How can we show more appreciation to employees?” 

  • “Ways employees would feel more appreciated” 

  • “How can we clarify job descriptions?”

Try Design Thinking 

Design thinking uses customer empathy to find the fundamental question. For instance, engineers in charge of an office building spent many futile hours trying to solve the problem of slow elevators. 


A breakthrough came when someone suggested that they change their focus from “how to fix the elevators” to “how to distract the people when they wait for elevators.” This led to the idea of putting mirrors beside the elevators, so people could look at themselves while they were waiting. Complaints dropped dramatically. As a result, placing mirrors beside elevators has become a common practice.

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