frustrated man

What the Heck is Your Problem?

project management Mar 17, 2023

Baby Boomer motor heads will know this name: Charles Kettering.  He was head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947 and he said “A problem well stated is half solved”. 

In this short paper, we will replace “stated” with “framed” and we’ll give you an easily-remembered, time proven framework to help you frame and then solve your most vexing problems, at home and work.

Three Truths About Problems

Our analysis over the last several decades has uncovered three basic truths about solving problems that arise in our everyday lives:

  1. Very seldom do all the parties involved in solving a problem agree, initially, on what the problem even is.
  2. Almost never is the problem a single issue - - - usually they are multifactorial.
  3. Most problems do not occur, or get solved, in a vacuum. Final solutions are constrained by related issues or parallel processes that get discovered along the way.

Let’s use a common, real-world example:  A family’s need for a different vehicle for transportation.  We have a mom, dad, 14-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. 

Without a collaborative process, asking these four people to just “sort it out” around the kitchen table, which is happening all over the world as you read these words, will almost certainly result in hurt feelings and no real collaboration. 

Who Wants What?

If the problem is stated simply as “we need a new vehicle” then a one-on-one interview with each family member might give us these more detailed problem statements (aka “interests”):

  • Mom: Our old sedan won’t cut it any longer.  My husband and I need to be able to carry five kids, plus equipment, to lacrosse practice when it is our turn once a month.  A regular, five-passenger car won’t work for us anymore.  We need something MUCH bigger.

  • Son: I need to have something nice that girls won’t be embarrassed to ride in, on dates with me. Our current car is rusty and beat-up.  And a minivan won’t do at all.  Something with some real horsepower, to be able to accelerate out of the merge lanes on the interstate, and safely merge into traffic, would also be great.

  • Daughter: I just want to get dropped off at school, and picked up, in something that looks nice. I am embarrassed to take my friends, or even be seen, in our car right now, with its rust and crappy paint.

  • Dad- We cannot afford a new car right now, with all our other bills. Nor can we afford a higher insurance bill or a vehicle that is in the shop for maintenance/repairs all the time.  And I would like to be able to haul the lawn mower to the shop and carry lumber for home projects.

Let's draw a parallel for a moment.  The technical problems we face in our jobs, such as which radar to put on an unmanned air vehicle, will involve building an operations concept, prioritization of mission needs, a ranking of desired sensor attributes, an analysis of constraints such as vehicle payload and size weight and power (SWaP) constraints, and then the generation of ranked, prioritized requirements.  Then possible sensor choices will be evaluated against those requirements.

Back to our Family

Even though their problem is simpler than installing radar systems, our hypothetical family will still need to first prioritize and rank their requirements. 

Prioritized Vehicle Requirements

Money - Money seems to be the main restriction, so Dad and Mom will need to look at the monthly household budget and determine how large a car payment they can comfortably afford.  That will tell them the range of car prices they should consider.  Let’s say they and their bank decide they can afford to spend $18,000 for a vehicle. 

Seats - The number of passenger seats seems to be the next requirement, with a minimum of six seats being the threshold. 

Nice Looking - The daughter’s desire for something “nice looking” can be met with most any vehicle with no dents, nice paint and chrome

Attractive and Powerful - The son’s desire for something with power can be met with a V-8 engine.  His desire for something “nice” can also be met with a vehicle with a clean, unstained interior, attractive upholstery, nice paint and chrome and no dents

Let's Frame That Bad Boy!

Next, our family should frame the problem.  So, let’s put this into the well-established problem framing structure perfected by Dr. Crawley of MIT:

We want to . . .
By . . .
Using . . .
While . . .

To frame our vehicle dilemma, we then get:

We want to replace our current vehicle with one that meets as many of our family’s needs as possible.
matching affordability, and vehicle performance/features against four family members’ desires.
various manufacturers’ and dealers’ advertised prices and vehicle features, and unbiased third-party assessments of reliability and maintainability. 
staying within a budget of $18,000 “out the door” (all-inclusive of title, taxes, tags and extended warrantees) for a vehicle that seats at least six adults.

Dad was worried about the cost of acquiring, insuring and maintaining the vehicle. 

And, as a nice-to-have capability, he wanted to be able to carry lumber and maybe even the lawn mower for servicing/repair.  A pick-up truck would work for Dad but they typically do not feature six seats.

Mom’s requirement to seat at least six people rules out all common passenger cars on the market today, as well as most cross-overs.  And most kids would rebel completely if a commercial van was chosen by the parents.  So a minivan is the most likely solution.  And the price of $18K rules out a new one, so the family should focus on used minivans. 

The daughter’s need for a nice looking vehicle can be met by any number of lightly-used minivans with excellent paint finishes and bright chrome, and she can help pick the color.

The son’s need for speed can be met by only considering vehicles equipped with V-8 engines. His desire for an attractive interior can be met by many used vehicles whose upholstery has  been properly cleaned and detailed.  And his bias against minivans in general can be met with the following “deal” offered by the parents - - -  “get a better job now and save your money, then after your freshman year in college, we’ll help you buy a used car that you like.  In the meantime we’ll make sure our new vehicle has a great interior, and an excellent sound system so you and your friends can deafen yourselves.”

The Solution

In the end, our prototypical American family buys a used, deep red (daughter’s color choice), Toyota Sienna with an excellent factory sound system (the son likes that, and the V-8 engine and sunroof).  It seats six people (seven in a pinch) so Mom is happy.  This model also gets great marks for high reliability, has a 100K mile dealer's warranty on the drivetrain and a factory roof rack on which Dad can carry long pieces of lumber for home projects, or mount any of several after-market cargo carrier for schlepping kids to and from lacrosse games.  (Sorry Dad, the lawn mower will still need to be picked-up by the repair shop for servicing.)


We solved the problem by understanding the interests of the four key "stake holders" and then framing the problem with those interests in mind.  As the lawyers say, everyone is slightly disappointed, so it is a good agreement!

Van photos courtesy of Hyundai Motor Company and Toyota Motor Corporation.  Unsplash car photos by Sergio Rota, Grant Ritch, Tabea Schimpf, Zanelle Lofty-Eaton, Markus Spiske and Benjamin Child.



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