The Project Notebook

Which One Came First — The Solution or the Problem?

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Let’s say that you’re faced with a complex problem, and there appears to be no answer.  Then someone comes along and gives you an answer to the problem.  Is this a miracle or what?  Actually, this situation is a trap that ensnares many project managers and at the worst can be the “kiss of death” to their project management careers.

 Answers do not equal solutions.  Many project managers are assigned to projects and told to implement a pre-determined “answer” to a problem.  For example, an organization decides to install an enterprise-wide software package.  Does anybody ask why the organization has chosen this answer?  And even more remarkably, does anybody ask what the problem is that generated this answer?  Another situation occurs when a company decides that it needs to relocate one of its facilities.  Does anybody dare to ask why this decision is necessary?

 Organizations are perpetually in a rush to make decisions.  Information (good, bad and not relevant) is available somewhere in cyberspace for the asking.  The media is crammed with “30-second sound bite fixes” to any problem that troubles this planet.  As project managers we face these challenges every time that we begin a project.  Everyone has an answer, but few have a solution.  The following sample situations outline some techniques to use in determining whether your project will actually address the problem.

 Let’s start with the software implementation situation.  So often, installing a software package is deemed to be a quick answer to improve productivity, enhance customer service, or reduce labor costs.  A project manager assigned to manage the software installation needs to ask these questions in the initiation phase:

  • What is the true problem that is being addressed?  Beware of symptoms that masquerade as problems.
  • What viable alternatives exist that do address the problem?
  • How does this particular software package address this problem?

 Let’s move to the relocation situation.  It is critical that companies know what is motivating them to move facilities.  Cost reduction is typically a major reason that is given.  However, if the same ineffective management philosophies and operational processes are also being relocated, all that has possibly been reduced is the facility cost.  Some questions to ask in this situation are the following:

  • What are the true causes and forces that are mandating the relocation?
  • Does relocation truly address the problems that have been identified?
  • What (processes, job skills, etc.) needs to be eliminated or modified before the relocation?

 As young children we all asked those questions that frustrate every parent and teacher:  why?  what?  how?  As project managers we need to continue not only to ask the questions but to look beneath the surface of the answers to find the true solutions.

 Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee.  She can be contacted at

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