To Be a Better Librarian Problem Solver Start By Being a Problem Finder

Librarians take great pride in being problem solvers. I want to be a better problem finder. Here’s why.

Design thinking is about problem solving.

Ultimately, I’d say that’s true. Properly applied, it’s a process that should lead to an elegant, thoughtful solution.

Where I tend to deviate from most of what I read about design thinking in the library literature is that to my way of thinking it’s much more about problem finding than problem solving. If you want to solve the problem you need to truly understand what the problem is.

Go back to the 1991 “Deep Dive” episode of Nightline. The designers at IDEO have little expertise other than their understanding of and ability to carry out the design thinking process. Whatever the challenge, be it designing a better shopping cart or revolutionizing the education system for an entire country, it all starts with finding the problem.

I was reminded of this when watching Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Stanford Design School, and Dave Evans of Electronic Arts, talk about their book Designing Your Best Life in this video. Go to the 4:05 mark and you will hear Burnett say:

Designers look around and they try to find the right problem because problem finding turns out to be way more important than problem solving ’cause if you’re working on the wrong problem you will get the wrong answer every single time.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg’s expands on Burnett’s point in his article “Are You Solving the Right Problem” found in the January-February 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review. The gist of his global research into the problem-solving behavior of executives at 91 private and public-sector organizations is that “managers tend to switch quickly into solution mode without checking whether they really understand the problem.”

The way design thinking is discussed in libraryland, the focus is frequently on the solving and not so much the finding. We need to rethink that.

One way is to pay more attention to those initial phases of design thinking. Early on the team has a mission, a desired outcome, but has only a vague sense of what’s broken. By starting off with efforts to understand the problem from the user’s perspective (thus “human-centered design”) and then analyzing the accumulated intelligence, a more accurate definition of the problem precedes any deep dive into potential solutions. Wedell-Wedellsborg offers us some advice on how to get better at problem finding by using a “problem-diagnosis framework”.

It starts with reframing the problem. Instead of responding to the problem with the most obvious, and possibly costly solution, the idea is to examine the problem from a different perspective. One of Wedell-Wedellsborg’s examples is the slow elevator problem. When people complain about long waits, what’s the solution? Get a faster elevator? Turns out there is a better solution that costs almost nothing – if you reframe it from a slowness problem to a waiting problem.

As s I’ve written previously, this is easily said but hard to accomplish. Wedell-Wedellsborg offers seven practices to help us with the reframing task:

* Establish Legitimacy – Get the rest of the team on board with the idea of reframing the problem and looking beyond the most obvious solutions; is there more to the problem than meets the eye?

* Invite outsiders into the discussion – Get the viewpoint of someone detached from the situation; not necessarily an outside consultant but possibly someone else in the organization with a different view.

* Get it in writing – There could be a considerable difference between what we say we think the problem and how we define it in writing; ask team members or outsiders to write down how they perceive the problem and then make sure everyone agrees on what the actual problem is.

* What are we missing – With a good written description in hand a more methodical review is possible; focus on what’s missing. Keys to solutions are often in what’s been overlooked.

* Consider multiple categories – Broaden the perspective of a problem situation by identifying more than one or two categories (e.g., incentive problem; money problem; apathy problem) into which it could fit. This exercise can help avoid groupthink and a too narrow view of the problem.

* Analyze positive exceptions – When didn’t this problem happen? What were the circumstances at that time that kept it from happening? An analysis of a problem-free time may help identify what’s no longer working and how to correct things.

* Question the objective – Keep asking questions about each possible problem scenario. What is it we really want to accomplish? What does success look like? Only then can we be clear about what solutions will get us to that end.

It’s encouraging to see more librarians viewing their problems as design challenges. It is a refreshing change from a past where we jumped quickly to solutions. Too often it was based on assumptions about what librarians thought was right for community members, rather than a human-centered design process.

No doubt we can get even better at using design for better libraries. Let’s continue to work on putting problem finding ahead of problem solving.

Author: StevenB

Steven Bell is currently Associate University Librarian for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University, and was previously Director of the Library at Philadelphia University. Steven is the author of two regular columns published by Library Journal, From the Bell Tower and Leading From the Library. With John Shank he is co-founder of the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community. Bell and Shank are also authors of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. Bell's latest book is Crucible Moments: Inspiring Library Leadership. More information is found at his website.

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