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With all the Oscar buzz this week about Gravity, I was reminded of another movie about space exploration that I love – Apollo 13 (1995).

“Houston, we have a problem.”

“Houston, we have a problem.” It’s one of my favorite movie lines and ranks #50 on the American Film Institute’s list of top movie quotes from the last 100 years.  The original phrase, spoken first by Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert, was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” noting a fire in one of the oxygen tanks and triggering a series of decisions that would ultimately bring the 1970 Apollo lunar mission safely home – but without its prized moonwalk.

So, you might ask, “Houston, just what was the problem?”

And this is why, as a business leader, I think Apollo 13 is a great example of the right way to approach problem-solving. Because there wasn’t just one problem. There were dozens. They had an oxygen tank that exploded. The Service Module, housing essential electrical and mechanical components, was not functioning. Temperatures were dropping. One of the crewmembers was running a fever.

What problem were they trying to solve? It really wasn’t any of those. What they needed first was to figure out what they really wanted to accomplish.  Once they clearly knew that, it made determining and prioritizing the problems much easier.

The real end game was getting the crew home safely.  So NASA and the astronauts problem-solved to piece together solutions that met the goal.  With Apollo 13 safely back on Earth, they were then able to address the nagging question of what caused the explosion in the first place. NASA did learn later that it was a damaged coil inside the oxygen tank. If they had spent time trying to solution that first, the Apollo 13 crew would never have made it home.

I was years into my career before I realized the importance of identifying the right problem before jumping headlong into finding solutions. Many business people fall prey to this. The boss says what he or she wants to achieve and the supporting team begins generating solutions. It takes a strong leader to stop and ask, “Are we solving the right problem?”

“Are we solving the right problem?”

It may not be rocket science, but sometimes it’s hard to do because it means taking an extra step, investing a little more time and pushing against the tide. If we pause to dig a little deeper and better understand core business issues that may influence desired outcomes (before we begin problem-solving), we make sure we’re focusing on the right problems. And we come up with more strategic, sustainable and successful solutions.

Melissa Copeland, Northridge Group Executive Lead, Business Process, and Program Management, explains, “The client often comes to us knowing the outcome they need. The outcome dictates what we do, but the client doesn’t always know the problem that needs to be solved to get to that outcome. As consultants, our job is to identify the real problem through best practices and discoveries with detailed data analytics. The key is to take the time with the data, and the right problem will come to light – only then can you start to work towards the appropriate solutions.”

It’s not easy to ask your boss or your team to press the pause button to ensure you are addressing the right problems before you begin trying to solve them.  And it won’t always make you popular.  But the results will speak for themselves.

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