The day did not end well. Don grew exasperated
with what seemed like a word game, and Mr. Oba,
tired of not getting an answer to his question, eventually walked out of Don’s office. But, despite the
frustration on both sides, we later realized that Mr.
Oba was trying to teach Don one of the foundational
skills in leading effective change: formulating a clear
problem statement. Since Mr. Oba’s visit, two of the
authors have studied and worked with dozens of organizations and taught over 1,000 executives. We have
helped organizations with everything from managing
beds in a cardiac surgery unit to sequencing the
human genome. 4 Based on this experience, we have
come to believe that problem formulation is the single
most underrated skill in all of management practice.
There are few questions in business more powerful than “What problem are you trying to solve?”
In our experience, leaders who can formulate clear
problem statements get more done with less effort
and move more rapidly than their less-focused
counterparts. Clear problem statements can unlock
the energy and innovation that lies within those
who do the core work of your organization.
As valuable as good problem formulation can be,
it is rarely practiced. Psychologists and cognitive scientists have suggested that the brain is prone to
leaping straight from a situation to a solution without pausing to define the problem clearly. Such
“jumping to conclusions” can be effective, particularly when done by experts facing extreme time
pressure, like fighting a fire or performing emergency surgery. But, when making change, neglecting
to formulate a clear problem statement often prevents innovation and leads to wasted time and
money. In this article, we hope to both improve
your problem formulation skills and introduce a
simple method for solving those problems.
How Our Minds Solve Problems
Research done over the last few decades indicates
that the human brain has at least two different
methods for tackling problems, and which method
dominates depends on both the individual’s cur-
rent situation and the surrounding context. A large
and growing collection of research indicates that it
is useful to distinguish between two modes of
thinking, which psychologists and cognitive scien-
tists sometimes call automatic processing and
conscious processing (also sometimes known as
system 1 and system 2). 5 These two modes tackle
problems differently and do so at different speeds.
Conscious Processing Conscious processing represents the part of your brain that you control.
When you are aware that you are thinking about
something, you are using conscious processing.
Conscious cognition can be both powerful and precise. It is the only process in the brain capable of
forming a mental picture of a situation at hand and
then playing out different possible scenarios, even
if those scenarios have never happened before. 6
With this ability, humans can innovate and learn in
ways not available to other species.
Despite its power, conscious processing is “
expensive” in at least three senses. First, it is much
slower than its automatic counterpart. Second, our
capacity to do it is quite finite, so a decision to confront one problem means that you don’t have the
capacity to tackle another one at the same time.
Third, conscious processing burns scarce energy
and declines when people are tired, hungry, or distracted. Because of these costs, the human brain
system has evolved to “save” conscious processing
for when it is really needed and, when possible, relies on the “cheaper” automatic processing mode.
Automatic Processing Automatic processing
works differently from its conscious counterpart.
We don’t have control over it or even feel it happening. Instead, we are only aware of the results,
such as a thought that simply pops into your head
or a physical response like hitting the brake when
the car in front of you stops suddenly. You cannot
directly instruct your automatic processing functions to do something; instead, they constitute a
kind of “back office” for your brain. When a piece
of long-sought-after information just pops into
your head, hours or days after it was needed, you
are experiencing the workings of your automatic
When we tackle a problem consciously, we proceed logically, trying to construct a consistent path
from the problem to the solution. In contrast, the
automatic system works based on what is known as
association or pattern matching. When confronted
with a problem, the automatic processor tries to