What’s the problem?

A quick fix is not always the best solution

13 November 2014

Yesterday was the kick-off of the new module ‘The Researcher’. Not the most favourite subject for many students, but definitely one of the more important ones. In my work as lecturer I coach a lot of students in the process of writing their research thesis. In my spare time I help friends who have to do research for their master thesis. And I have to do research for my own business as well of course. But like everyone else, I tend to make the same mistake as my students, my friends and lots of businesses; I look for solutions before I define what the actual problem is…

I am a problem-solver; working at a festival or in an office, I am the first one to pick up something that needs to be done. I am quick and start before I even think. A great characteristic when working in conditions where time is of the essence, like in production at a festival. I see something is wrong and I take action immediate. Being quick has brought me many things in life – it is a strength but at the same time it is a weakness. A quick fix is not always the best solution! It might work right there and then, but it might cause even more problems in the long term.

Earlier this week I attended a meeting about work stress. The workload is too big and we wanted to find out how we can work more efficient to lighten the load. Everybody came with solutions, but one person remarked that we do not even know what the exact problem is and what it is that causes the problem. We should investigate and map the problem before trying to solve it. The same happened when I asked in class what information was needed to help an organisation launching a new product; the class came with beautiful and good suggestions to solve the problem, but if we do not know what the problem is, how can we give recommendations? If we do not know why people do not go to a certain venue, we can promote the venue everywhere; spend a lot of money on advertising and hire someone to get busy on social media, but if the (potential) audience does not like the music, think the entrance fee is too high, find the location difficult to get to or does not like the beer they serve, extra promotion will not help.

It is a challenge for most of my graduation students and my friends; like me, most of them have the urge to think in solutions and do not take the time to define the problem. A client or maybe your own business is dealing with a problem; very often it is about making more money (sell more tickets, get more bookings, sell more music, get more (paid) assignments, find a business model) or how to manage your business (what is good leadership, change management, dealing with staff, reducing stress, assuring high quality services or products). The focus should be on investigating the problem and finding out what information you need to deal with the problem. It should always be about knowledge first; what information is needed, what knowledge can you get and what questions should be asked.

Research is not about answering a question, but about asking the right questions. And you do not know what questions to ask if you cannot pinpoint the problem. That takes time; time to talk to people, to read what other people wrote about similar matters, to check statistics etc. You probably need more than 1 meeting with the client to determine what the exact problem is. Or you might want to interview a couple of experts to get more information about the problem. You can read ejournals or look for theories about the issue. Sometimes it helps to look at statistics in public databases. After you have collected secondary data through desk research, you might want to go back to the client and talk to them again to make sure you focus on the real problem. Perhaps you have to convince the client that what you have found is the problem, because a client probably also wants a solution and thinks ‘just’ information is not enough.

That is definitely a pitfall when you do research for a client. They want more from you than you can deliver in the given time. They want a solution, but all you can do is gather data in books, ejournals and from the people involved. You can only collect information from secondary sources (desk research and preliminary interviews) and primary sources (through interviewing people or asking people to fill in a survey). So it is not just you who would like a solution, but the client wants that too!

Don’t panic. If you are doing research, take your time to define the problem. It is the utmost important step!!! Without a good problem definition, you cannot ask the right questions and if you do not ask the right questions, you will never be able to give recommendations that can lead to a solution.