Solving the Right Problem

In order to be effective, coaching must be addressing the right problem. This means that the coach and the client must work together to identify the underlying issues that are preventing the client from achieving their goals or performing at their best. This requires careful listening, observation, and questioning to understand the client’s situation and identify the root cause of the problem.

However, what often happens is that we rush in, ask what the client would like to work on and move quickly to the next two stages which often involves analysing what they have said and solving with action steps.

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg believes that time spent determining what the problem actually is needs to be prioritised and slowed down, otherwise we risk following an agenda that is set by a premature focus on what we think the issue is. Instead we need to learn the art of re-framing.

He gives the example of a company who is told that the lift in the building is too slow. Management immediately move towards finding ways to speed it up. Yet stopping and looking at other ways of reframing the problem could completely change the action needed. Suggestions for different ways of looking at the problem could include:

• Are too many people using the lift?
• Are people bored, hence the complaint
• Why are people in such a hurry?
• Is it a timing issue with too many people needing the lift at the same time?
• Do people need to change floors that often?

Get the picture? Any one of these possibilities could be the real issue and require a different solution. (E.g. if people are bored it has been shown that putting a mirror in the lift creates more interest as they check out themselves or fellow passengers.)

It is not hard to see how this type of thinking could be used in health and wellness coaching. Let’s take a simple example of someone who wants to feel better rested.
An over eager coach might go straight to the solution of helping them change their bedtime habits or sleeping environment – both of which have many possibilities for change.

Yet if we stay with learning more about what better rested means, or what is causing the poor sleep – going beyond the obvious – we may find that one or more of the following are contributing:

  • The client is very stressed at work
  • They are getting little exercise
  • Their daytime routine involves doing tasks that bore them or make them feel tired (understimulated)
  • Their thyroid needs checking.

Our questions of course begin with “What do you think could be contributing to this feeling?” Instead of going straight to what happens at bedtime and during the night.

This may not seem like a revolutionary change and many of you will think that this is obvious. Yet is it? The way we frame a problem determines which solutions we come up with.

There are simple steps to check whether you are in fact attempting to reframe the problem.

  1. Look outside the frame. What if sleep is not the problem. Ask about the feeling or sense of tiredness.
  2. Challenge the goal – “what are we really trying to achieve?”
  3. Examine bright spots – are there exceptions when you don’t feel like this?

This is a good reminder to go back to the questions we ask when helping a client create a long term vision for change.

• What else could change?
• How does that affect the rest of your life?
• Why does this matter to you?
• What is the most important thing here?

Coaching seems like quite a narrow field at times and health and wellness coaching even more niche. Yet we can learn so much from other fields and models.

The author referred to above is not a coach. Design thinking is a term that is used in other industries but when you read the following description, can you apply it to our work? I think so.

Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving that focuses on understanding the needs and perspectives of the people who will use a product or service, and then using that understanding to develop innovative solutions. It is a human-centered and iterative approach that involves a series of stages, including empathizing with users, defining the problem, ideating potential solutions, prototyping, and testing.

The key point here is to understand the needs and perspectives of the people…
And this simply cannot be rushed. Otherwise, we might well end up trying to solve the wrong problem.

Reference: Wedell-Wedellsborg, T. (2020) What’s your problem? Harvard Business Review Press: Boston.