What is the problem?

I visited a Dermatologist in India a few years back about a skin problem. Once we were taken in, she got straight to business with a question. She asked –  “What is the problem?”

I had some black-ish skin near my forehead. I was trying to understand what the problem.

“Yes,” she said – “But, what is the problem?”

So, I explained what the issue was again – in slightly different language.

“Yes, but what is the problem?”

At this point, I wasn’t really clear if this was a visit to a dermatologist or a psychiatrist. So, I took a crack at explaining what I thought might have  been the cause of the marks. I had played soccer a couple of years back in the afternoon sun and had felt my skin burn. But, I hadn’t done anything and, over time, these marks appeared.

“Yes, but what is the problem?”

A couple of “what is the problem” questions later, we reached a dead end. I was frustrated. So, she wrote down a couple of creams that she thought I should take and let me out. To compound all this, she also had a 3 minute timer she kept resetting. Time was clearly money in her world. So, she was clearly making an effort to keep it top of mind.

The creams turned out to be useless.

A few months later, I visited another Dermatologist. I showed him my black-ish marks. He asked a few questions, explained the likely cause and gave me a couple of creams that actually did make it much better. My mother still imitates the “what is the problem” as it cracks both of us up.

So, what was the real problem?

My diagnosis is that you cannot be an effective problem solver if you ask those you interview what the problem is. This applies if you are a doctor, a sales person, a user experience researcher or a management consultant. The reason you exist is because people don’t know what the problem is. Finding the problem is where post of the hard work lies. The solution is an after thought. That’s not because the solution doesn’t matter. But, if you know what the problem is with certainty, then you know that it is only a matter of time before you find an answer that works. You just have to test and persist. But, if you aren’t sure what the problem is, you are shooting in the dark.

As a result, asking someone “what is the problem” when you are in a problem solving role is possibly the worst question you can ask. Instead, you are better off taking some time to understand the facts before coming to an informed conclusion on what the problem is.

The key – in problem solving roles, we need to view ourselves as problem finders more than solution finders.

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3 thoughts on “What is the problem?”

  1. Rohan, that first dermatologist was remarkable. I think she was trying to tell you that she thought the mark added to your story and didn’t need to be removed.

    I think I disagree with your thesis. It’s frustrating when the person we hire tells us that we don’t need her help. It feels disrespectful. But maybe she is actually doing us a huge service. She is turning down money because she honestly thinks we are better off without her. She probably has more impact on her customers then the professional who follows orders.

    What are your thoughts on this idea?

    1. Haha. I think that is a hugely optimistic view Luke. The issues are that she is not turning down any money – she still got paid. :)

      And, next, if all marks could be added to people’s stories, dermatologists don’t need to exist.

  2. The doctor’s abrupt manner sounds frustrating. The doctor could have easily improved the question by asking “What problem does the skin discoloration create for you?” Perhaps your answer is one of the following: (1) I don’t care about it visually, but I am concerned that this could be a medical issue and I’m looking to rule that out (2) It’s physically uncomfortable (3) My concern is purely cosmetic. Once the doctor knows what problem you’re trying to address, an appropriate recommendation can be made. In that way, this doctor may have been looking for the problem, but needed to understand where you were coming from on the issue. That said, the doctor clearly didn’t know and threw a prescription at it that didn’t work. Regardless of this particular doctor’s intent, she’s not very good at it.

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