Getting to the root of a problem

Often, when we come across a problem, we just want to dive in and fix it, and that's fine. But if we also find the cause of the problem, it's less likely to happen again.

Let's get started with a quick overview of some questions to ask when trying to solve a problem.

How big a problem is this?

To start solving the problem, you'll need to understand the size of it.

Who's affected?

You'll need to find out who's affected by the problem, and if there are any knock-on impacts affecting others.

What do they think?

You'll need to gather the opinions of everyone affected to make sure the problem gets solved to everyone's benefit.

What happens when the problem is solved?

Fixing the problem will create change, so you'll need to make sure everyone involved will be comfortable with that.

Now let's look at these points in a bit more detail.

How big is this problem, and who's affected?

You need to understand the size of the problem and the scale of its impact before you can start to find a solution. Then you need to know who's affected by the problem and who can do something about it. These are your 'stakeholders', and you begin by talking to them. A stakeholder is an individual, group or organisation that has an interest in the success of a piece of work or project, and different stakeholders may have varying levels of interest and priorities.

The stakeholders you speak to should include those that are involved in the chain of events before the point where the problem happens, those involved and affected at the point that it happens, and any others that are involved in any knock-on effects or outcomes.

Trying to solve a problem by yourself is frustrating, and often ends up with poor results. Contacting people affected by a problem can be challenging but shows everyone you care about their experience, and their input will make finding a solution a lot easier.

What do they think?

In the same way you'd appreciate being spoken to before anything big happens to you, other people also value being asked for their input when it comes to the decisions that affect them.

And fixing problems creates change. Getting peoples buy-in is important when things are changing. If you're able to make your stakeholders feel valued and that their opinion truly matters, they're more likely to buy-in to any big changes you would like to make.

Start with questions about what is and what isn't working, what are the challenges you're facing, if you were to start over what would you change? Keep the questions simple and direct. Gathering these opinions allows you to see the big picture - the whole problem, not just what you can see from your own perspective.

Make sure everyone affected has chance to give their opinions. Find out more about a variety of methods you can use on our guide to brainstorming to gather opinions so that people can contribute in a way that they're comfortable with.

What happens when the problem is solved?

When the problem is solved, it will bring change to all those that you've been speaking to. Make sure they are aware of the impact that change may bring and that they're happy with it. By gaining the trust of your stakeholders and learning from their experience, you can help build bridges between people by solving the problem you're faced with.

The '5 Whys' technique

Here's a technique that's widely used in problem solving and may be helpful to you.

The '5 Whys' is a technique you can use to get to the root cause of a problem. The '5 Whys' analysis means you ask why? up to five times, or sometimes more. This lets you drill down far enough to get to the root cause of a problem, and then decide what you must do about it.

First, you select a cause. There may be more than one, so choose the one that seems to be having the most impact. This is the most important of the five whys; why does the problem exist? And then with each answer ask why again until you find the root cause.

Don't be afraid to be curious. It may take five questions, but it could be as many as 15 or as few as three. The point is to be open to, and willing to explore all possibilities. Using '5 Why's' technique makes sure that you're getting down to the root cause of a problem and solving it, not just applying a quick fix to an issue that will crop up again later.

Let's end on an example

The 5 whys example

Problem: we aren't receiving as many downloads of our app as we used to.

1. Why has the issue been brought to our attention?
The sales team noted a drop in downloads and noticed there was a technical issue with the app
2. Why hasn't the testing team caught the issue?
The testing team only performed testing prior and shortly after launch
3. Why hasn't continuous testing or spot checks been done?
Because the team don't have enough time and testers to do the testing
4. Why is there not enough time for testing?
Because the testers are tied up in 3 other projects
5. Why was on-going testing and maintenance not built into the plan?
And so on...

...therefore, your root cause may be that app maintenance was not considered for after the app went live, and your solution may be to hire additional testers to conduct continuous testing or spot checks moving forward.