In this episode, Richard Larson shares five techniques you can use to discover the underlying problem or opportunity to solve create the right solution.

After listening to this episode, you'll understand:

  • How to find the real problem to solve
  • What to do when you’re given a solution to implement
  • What questions to ask to discover value-creating opportunities
  • Techniques to visually map root causes and options

Show Notes

Are you always given a solution to implement or do you use your skills to discover the underlying problem to solve?  Finding the right project is more than separating needs and wants.  Being a Trusted Advisor means digging in and finding the root cause; the underlying problem to solve or opportunity on which we can capitalize.

Quite often, we implement a project that only partially addresses a problem or create solutions that people never use.

To become Trusted Advisors, we must focus on real business needs and not just what stakeholders tell you they need.  Once you understand the need, a business case can help you recommend the right path for your stakeholders.

There are several techniques that you can use to discover the underlying problem or opportunity related to the real business need.


Consultative Interviewing

Asking the right questions while interviewing stakeholders can help you uncover the underlying need.  These types of questions are designed to get stakeholders talking about their true needs and not solutions.

Your questions should be open ended and avoid leading questions that have a hidden solution in them.  This type of question helps your stakeholder to explore the problem more deeply and perhaps find other problems beneath the surface.


Five Whys

Another approach for digging deeper and discovering the root cause is the five whys technique.  This technique can be used in conjunction with consultative interviewing.

People are frequently impatient and want to move to the solution.  The five whys technique helps people to avoid prematurely talking about a solution and find the true root cause behind their initial request.


Fishbone Diagrams and Mind Maps

For a visual way of decomposing a problem to find the root cause or contributing factors, you can use a mind map or a fishbone diagram.

Both of these techniques support brainstorming and allows you to engage with stakeholders to collaboratively discover causes and effects.  These diagrams also provide a more holistic view than simply interviewing stakeholders.

Mind maps are less hierarchical and more free-flowing than a fishbone diagram while the fishbone diagram provides more structure.


Pareto Charts

When you have problems or opportunities where you can use data to understand the situation better, you can use a Pareto Chart to help guide you to selecting the right problem to address.

Using the Pareto principle, you get 80% of the benefit from solving 20% of the problems.  A Pareto chart is a way of visualizing the data to understand where the biggest impact is.

This gives you the means to prioritize your backlog to work on the most valuable things first and prevent some of our biases from influencing prioritization.


Interrelationship Diagrams

For more complex problems, Interrelationship Diagrams allow you to see the different parts of a problem and how they might interact with each other.  It helps you better understand causes and effects when changing different factors related to a problem.

This technique supports systems thinking by giving you a holistic view of the problem, the contributing factors, and the relationships between those factors.

Similar to the Pareto Chart, you should address the most impactful contributing factor you discover with the Interrelationship diagram.


The goal with all of these techniques is to discover the real problem or opportunity and address the underlying causes.

Listen to the full episode to get all of Richard’s tips for discovering the real problem or opportunity behind your project.



Your Homework

Choose one of the approaches that Richard mentioned and learn more about it.  Once you have a basic understanding of the techniques, find a safe environment to practice using it.


Links mentioned in this episode:

Richard Larson

Richard Larson

Founder and President, Watermark Learning

Richard Larson is Co-Principal, Founder, and President of Watermark Learning. He has over 30 years of experience in business, project management, business analysis, training,and mentoring. He has presented numerous workshops, seminars, and training classes since 1985 to over 10,000 participants on five continents.


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