Problem-solving is an important skill.
But what about problem-identification?
Sometimes it seems to be a taboo.
Very few like to talk about them, and when they do, their managers, or even friends and family will see such a person as 'negative' and 'difficult'. Or even worse: 'problem-seekers'. Even though everyone recognises it as the first step to problem-solving, problem-identification seems to have an unjustified negative reputation.
How one can solve problems without first identifying them correctly, is a mistery to me.
But way too often we see it happen: whenever an organisation is confronted with an issue, the first person who provides an answer, receives the praise. While someone with an engineering mindset might still be busy trying to get to the bottom of an issue, someone else already started 'doing something'. For simple problems this might be a good (somewhat primitive) strategy, but when facing complex situations, rushing to solutions might cause more harm.
This kind of behaviour was very clear during the Covid19 times. Politicians and others said we 'have to do something', before even doing basic research. Companies that offered any solution got immediately a large sum of money to start 'doing something'. Meanwhile, experts, statisticians and mathematicians where still busy calculating the risks (IFR?), exploring creative solutions (3d printed machines for hospitals?), and medical experts where still studying countless studies and books. Anyone who wanted to identify the real underlying problem or root cause was shunned, and sometimes even fired.
Many do not seem to like hearing about 'problems' and only care about 'solving'. Or, as activists and politicians call it: 'saving'. Nature, climate, stray dogs, the oceans, the poor, the hungry ... everything must be 'saved'. But whoever talks about identifying the root cause of these issues gets confronted with attacks from the ones who see themselves as 'problem-solvers'.
I am not interested in the political side of this, but the mechanism in human behaviour that result from this way of thinking fascinate me.
So why do some avoid problem-identification?
Sometimes it is a coping-mechanism to deal with our own shortcomings. For example, one could experience a feeling of discomfort when realizing that your own consumption contributes also to environmental damage, so in order to keep a positive self-image, one could compensate that by taking on a persona of the 'problem-solver'. In the 60's it was even an often used slogan "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem", without ever specifying in detail what was meant by 'the problem' and how it relates to a possible 'solution'.
Identifying problems may not be as visible or glamorous as finding solutions, which can make it a less appreciated activity.
And some in influential positions may fear being blamed if a problem persists, therefore rush to solutions as soon as possible.
Another mechanism in our behaviour is the tendency to rely too much on the most readily available information or experience when making judgments or decisions, which is known as the Availability heuristic. When we encounter a problem, we may rely on previous experiences or information that is most salient or vivid in our memory, rather than taking the time to gather and consider all relevant information. But when information is not available, a similar mechanism kicks in: Anchoring and adjustment heuristic. This is the tendency to be influenced by initial values or estimates when making judgments or decisions, even when those values are irrelevant or arbitrary. When we encounter a problem, we may be influenced by initial assumptions or estimates presented to us, and may not adjust them sufficiently based on later information or feedback.
Add to that the tendency to favor information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses (and to discount information that contradicts them), and one has justified their lack of problem-identification. At least, to themselves.
Which brings us to the next one: Overconfidence bias. This is the tendency to overestimate one's own abilities or the accuracy of one's judgments. When we approach a problem, we may be too confident in our initial ideas or solutions, and may not be open to feedback or alternative perspectives.
By now, you're probably thinking 'I know a person like that' and 'sound like that politician'. And that is true, because we all possess some of these characteristics.
Without proper problem-identification, the entire problem-solving process risks failure from human biases, especially when one fallacy amplifies another bias. Any attempt to solve something can de-rial quickly when multiple of such human fallacies and incorrect judgements are layered on top of each other.
Only once we have (without any bias) identified the root cause, we can develop a solution that addresses the problem at its core.
Interestingly however, some of the same mechanisms might also apply to problem-identifications: The anchoring and adjustment heuristic can lead us to focus on certain aspects of the problem at the expense of others, potentially leading to a narrow or incomplete understanding of the problem. Overconfidence bias can lead us to be too confident in our initial assessment of the problem and not being open to feedback or alternative perspectives.
Proper problem-identification requires a systematic approach that involves gathering data, analyzing information, asking the right questions, and having the freedom to do so. It should be welcomed with appreciation and (p)raise.
If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.