• Petri Rikkinen

Do you prefer to solve problems, look for solutions or focus on value?

Problem solvers systematically split the problem into solvable blocks. They start to explore every possible combination of blocks, to formulate a hypothesis of what to do. Let’s say that you want to improve declining company profit. Then you split declining profit into revenue and cost drivers and start working on those to find an answer to declining profit issue. This analytical approach is systematic, but focusing on problems limits thinking. 

Soccer field
Both problems and solutions define your playing ground - use values to see beyond obvious

Solution finders tend to create multiple arrangements of solutions and then test to see if they fit the requirements of the initial problem. An example of this could be the launch of a new service for new revenue growth. Solution finders create versions of the service and use it to collect feedback from customers and eventually iterate the final service based on experimentation. The solution-focused thinking is proactive, but again it might be biased and neglect some crucial aspects outside the solution scope.

We need both problem-solving and agile solution experimentation. The third option is value-focused thinking. It tells you the steps before jumping into problems and solutions. Focusing on values help you to find decision-situations that are appealing. 

Value, in this case, is an idea of how to evaluate the desirability of alternatives or consequences. Once you understand values, it can guide problem solving and solution-finding. The underlying purpose helps you to create an environment where you can make better decisions.

Four tips on how to work with values

1. Make values explicit by defining objectives, which is more complicated than you might think. An objective has by definition 1) a decision environment, 2) object itself and 3) direction of preference. One objective could be “Minimise environmental impact”. Then, the context is natural resources usage, and preference is to create less impact than more.

There are multiple techniques to think about objectives. You can develop a wish list: what do you want, what do you value, what should you want? Or determine objectives for customers, employees, and shareholders. 

2. Distinguish fundamental and means objectives. Fundamental objectives are “strategic” ones that provide common guidelines for the organisation. Means objectives are then methods to achieve something important.

You can separate fundamental and means objectives by asking “Why is that important?”

3. Generate new decision opportunities. We quickly jump into well-known or tested alternatives and solutions. Values can give us a creative boost to look at ideas beyond the obvious. What if you think of other options that meet two or more objectives at the same time - e.g. if you need to increase profitability of a product we typically start thinking how to lower manufacturing cost, distribution cost, increase sales volume and price. But what new alternatives/solutions could meet more than one objectives at the same time?

4. Start hunting decision opportunities.

Who needs more problems? No-one.

Decision opportunities mean that we convert the problem into something else. If you have a declining product X sales, maybe you can shift the thinking beyond the product. Who could you better meet the product X users' needs, or could you start focusing more on who the declining product is part company's broader offering?

Focusing on decision opportunities is also useful if you don't have direct control of a decision you care about. Let's say the regulation is changing, and it will have a significant impact on your business. By re-framing the problem into an opportunity, you'll start looking for solutions that are beneficial not only you but the others as well.

Read more:

Keeney, R.L., 1994. Creativity in decision making with value-focused thinking. Sloan Management Review, 35, pp.33-33.

Lawson, B., 2006. How designers think: The design process demystified. Routledge.