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Mike Figliuolo


Define the Question Before You Solve the Problem

Ramifications of miscommunication

Published: Monday, March 5, 2018 - 13:02

To effectively solve problems, you must first understand the question being asked and why it’s important to your stakeholder. Without clarity on why your stakeholder cares, the recommendation you generate might be useless.

The first step for generating a clear and compelling recommendation using a structured thought process is defining the question. All too often when stakeholders ask for a recommendation, we rush off to conduct an analysis and bring back an idea as quickly as possible. That approach can cause massive problems because we never stop to get clarity on what the real issue is.

Teams often assume everyone knows what the question is and therefore don’t take the time to document the issue. Even if they do document the issue, they don’t go the extra step of explaining why it’s important to the stakeholder to solve the issue. Without clarity and agreement on the “what” and the “why” of the issue, the likelihood of generating a recommendation that will meet the stakeholder’s needs is low.

To demonstrate the importance of defining and documenting the question, let’s walk through an example. Imagine I’m your stakeholder, and I ask you for a recommendation. I ask, “Can you get me your best idea for how we can generate an incremental $1 million in profits? Thanks!” I then leave the room. For this exercise, write down the first three ideas that come to mind for how you can solve my problem. Go ahead—write them down so we can refer back to them.

Finished? OK, let’s look at your ideas. You might have come up with ones like launching a new product, entering a new market, reducing manufacturing costs, conducting a layoff, or raising prices. You might want to launch a new marketing campaign, set up a joint venture, offer discounts to drive sales, or cut travel expenses. These are great ideas, but you might have a big problem: Your ideas might satisfy my “what,” but you have no idea what my “why” is for why I want this solved.

Understand the why

Imagine if my request to you was “Can you get me your best idea for how we can generate an incremental $1 million in profits because our earnings quarter ends in three weeks and we have to make up a financial shortfall? Thanks!”

Now look at the list of ideas you generated. Will any of them meet my needs as a stakeholder? Do any get me $1 million in three weeks?

If you’re lucky maybe one does, but most likely not. Think about how much effort you could have wasted if you didn’t understand my “why” of needing that money in three weeks. You might have conducted a large market and new product analysis, generated ideas for prototypes, and put together a launch plan to get the product to market in a blazing fast six months. All that analysis took you two weeks to conduct. When you come pitch your idea, instead of being overjoyed with your brilliant new product launch, I’m furious you wasted two of our precious three weeks messing around with irrelevant analysis. Both of us are at fault. I’m culpable because I didn’t tell you the “why” of my request. You’re at fault because you didn’t ask for the “why,” and you didn’t come back to me to confirm the question that needed to be answered.

Let’s change the scenario to one where I ask, “Can you get me your best idea for how we can generate an incremental $1 million in profits, because our earnings quarter ends in three weeks and we have to make up a financial shortfall? Thanks!” You know the “why” up front. You’ll focus on ideas resulting in short-term profits. You might generate ideas like locking down all corporate travel for three weeks, raising prices across the board, or deferring a large marketing campaign expenditure to the next quarter. Ideas like those will meet my needs and will receive a warmer reception when you pitch them to me. You won’t waste time on analysis that doesn’t matter. All your energy will focus on helping me achieve my objective. When you build a recommendation that’s mindful of the “why,” your odds of getting your idea approved increase tremendously.

Implications of defining the question

There are several implications stemming from defining the question. If you’re the one asking for ideas, be sure to let your team know the “why” behind your request. You’ll set them up to be successful that way.

If you’re the one being asked to generate a recommendation and your stakeholder doesn’t tell you the “why” of the request, ask him what it is. Let him know you want to meet his needs and to do so you have to understand his objectives.

Finally, write the question down. This is part of the discipline. By writing it down, you can go back to your stakeholder with something concrete and confirm it’s the question she wants you to answer. If it’s not what she wants answered, you’ll be able to iterate with her and refine the question until you’re both in agreement on what she wants you to answer. If you’ve ever spent a great deal of effort generating a recommendation only to find out on the back end that you answered the wrong question, you’ll understand how critical this agreement is.

This article is an excerpt from my latest book, The Elegant Pitch: Create a Compelling Recommendation, Build Broad Support, and Get it Approved (Career Press, 2016). The book spells out a straightforward process you can immediately use to get your ideas approved.

First published on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch and One Piece of Paper. He's the co-author of Lead Inside the Box. He's also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS, LLC—a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.