Being good at solving algebra word problems rarely helps us get a raise or earn that next big title bump.
The late David Jonassen, a former educational psychologist at the University of Missouri, can help us understand why. He spent much of his career researching how to develop better problem solvers.
Let's start with his definition of problems:
"A problem is an unknown that results from any situation in which a person seeks to fulfill a need or accomplish a goal. However, problems are problems only when there is a 'felt need' that motivates people to search for a solution in order to eliminate discrepancies."
The second part of his definition is particularly relevant in business. We already know many businesses fail because they don't address a "felt need." (Ahem, bottled water for pets!)
One of the more interesting distinctions Jonassen makes is between well-structured and ill-structured problems.
"The most commonly encountered problems, especially in schools and universities, are well-structured problems... these well-structured application problems require the application of a finite number of concepts, rules, and principles being studied to a constrained problem situation. These problems have also been referred to as transformation problems which consist of a well-defined initial state, a known goal state, and a constrained set of logical operators."
Ill-structured problems, on the other hand:
"Typically have several solutions, each of which offers advantages and disadvantages to different people and situations in the context of their application."
Many business problems are ill-structured problems. When we identify target customer segments or negotiate business deals, we don't follow a prescribed set of rules. Instead, our job is to generate solutions that have advantages for our customers and our business as compared to the competition.
Most schools teach us how to find right answers to certain problems. But we graduate into a world of ill-structured problems that have no right or wrong answers, that instead have several solutions with different advantages and disadvantages.
What makes this story even bleaker is that research shows that competence in solving well-structured problems doesn't lead to competence in solving ill-structured problems.
It's not all doom and gloom.
Fortunately, Jonassen can help us to become better at solving ill-structured problems:
"Conceptually, ill-structured problem solving may be thought of as a design process, not a systematic search for problem solutions."
This is a great distinction. If your job was simply to take an inventory of all possible solutions and choose the best one, little innovation would happen.
As an entrepreneur, it's not your job to choose the best option; it's your job to create a compelling option.
Jonassen gives us a playbook for how to create compelling solutions.
1. Frame the problem.
How we frame a problem impacts the solutions we might generate. We see evidence of this in the use of IDEO's "How might we ..." method and in conversations about the importance of defining the problem we are solving (see here and here).
2. Explore diverse perspectives.
Each perspective helps us see the problem in a new light. This is one of the advantages of cross-functional, collaborative teams--each discipline acts as a lens helping us to better see what we are facing.
3. Collect evidence.
Rather than arguing over which perspective is best, Jonassen advises us to collect evidence to help us evaluate each perspective. This might look like the experimentation that is popularized by The Lean Startup or it might include market or customer research.
4. Synthesize a new understanding.
Rarely will one perspective be correct. Instead, a team must synthesize a new perspective that integrates the best elements from each. The team can then move forward with a new shared understanding.
If you want to learn more about how Jonassen's problem-solving model can be applied to business, this article walks through how to use it to build better products.