For better problem solving, flip the funnel

In problem solving it’s common for people to follow the 20/80 rule: They spend 20 percent of their time understanding the problem effectively, and 80 percent of their time generating and debating solutions. It’s far more time efficient and effective to flip that ratio and follow the 80/20 rule instead.

80/20 Funnel by Tammy Lenski
Better Problem Solving Funnel (click to enlarge)
Typical problem solving funnel by Tammy Lenski
Typical Problem Solving Funnel (click to enlarge)

The 20/80 approach generally rule looks like the funnel at the near right, where the top end represents the beginning of problem solving and the amount of time on each typical problem solving stage is represented by the width of the funnel at that stage. I’ve emphasized in larger lettering the way many problem solvers spend their time and energy and put in parentheses steps that are often skipped entirely.

The 20/80 approach seems efficient because it feels like progress to move quickly into idea generating. The trouble with this approach is that hurrying past really good understanding of the problem (you think you know already, right?) usually isn’t efficient at all. Hurrying through the understanding stage too often yields stagnant solutions, missed opportunities and stuck positions. That’s because diagnosis, perception, judgment, and their breathren aren’t real understanding at all.

A better problem solving funnel

The 80/20 approach yields a funnel like the one below, which conveys two important ideas:

  1. Problems often start (top of the funnel) with wide divergence of perspective and ideas for resolution and end (bottom of the funnel), when handled well, with a narrow set of ideas or solutions that you believe can work and are prepared to commit to.
  2. The top of the funnel, the wide end, represents the amount of time on each stage. Understanding should be the bulk of the time spent and, done well, the time required for each subsequent step decreases.

What does time spent garnering real understanding look like? It’s time spent building out a fuller story of what happened. It’s time spent framing the problem in terms that make it jointly solvable. It’s time spent considering not only what you don’t want, but also what you do want.

That’s a taste of the work I do with my clients.