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Problem Understanding vs. Solution Formulation

. PeteW

The Winter 2009 issue of Rotman's journal from their school of management is dedicated to 'Wicked Problems'--and building shared understanding around them.

In an interview, Jeff Conklin, of the CogNexus Institue, explains why a new approach to problem solving that is built on a foundation of shared understanding is required.

Rotman: Discuss the relation between ‘problem understanding’ and ‘solution formulation’.

Conklin: When I first started out, the implicit assumption was that problems were stable and well defined, and most of the work in any major project involved coming up with the solution. The process of working out a solution was understood to be fundamentally linear – a sequence of steps which, if followed, would result in a successful outcome. Today, there is increasing awareness that a shared understanding of a given problem cannot be taken for granted, and that the absence of buy-in about a problem’s definition, scope and goals can kill a project just as surely as faulty implementation. Organizations are beginning to embrace the idea that these two aspects of projects – problem understanding and solution formulation – are not distinct phases, but rather different kinds of conversations that must be woven together from beginning to end. Problem structuring is a critical aspect of the design process that takes into account the diversity of goals, assumptions and meanings among stakeholders. At the heart of this new understanding of organizational life is the recognition that project work is fundamentally social, and that communication among stakeholders must be managed and nurtured in order for the social network to cohere into a functioning entity. What is missing from our ‘social network tool kit’ is an environment or ‘container’ in which stakeholders can collectively step back to see the big picture.


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