What Problems are You Solving and Why?

What Problems are You Solving and Why?

In technical roles, we are usually approached with a high-level objective and the specifications that our solution needs to meet. This is familiar territory for us, because since the start of our education, we have accepted the problems handed to us at face value, and focused all of our energy on identifying the best solution.

I have vivid memories of being asked to calculate the electromagnetic field of a point in space, based on other parameters. But I know for sure that I never asked “why?”

During my first job, I learned how powerful the question “why?” can be.  From this point forward, I am encouraging you to start asking “why?” before diving into any problem you face at work, because it will lead to solving more impactful problems and maximizing your professional growth.

Here are three scenarios that showcase the importance of asking “why?”

  1. Separate the “must haves” from “nice to haves”

I was recently in a meeting where a stakeholder was outlining the ideal deliverables. Many were items that our team expected, but there were also a few that raised eyebrows.

Initially, I felt a little uncomfortable asking “why?” I did not want to appear that I did not understand something or that I was questioning the stakeholder. After scoping out many projects, I realized that without asking why certain components were required, the team cannot efficiently evaluate and determine the best path forward.

In the meeting, when I asked for the rationale behind a few of the deliverables, it clarified what the stakeholder truly valued, and also helped me to prioritize what the team could accomplish to achieve their goal.

  1. Approach problems more efficiently

Have you ever tried to build a puzzle without knowing what the picture looked like? This is exactly what you are doing when you don’t understand the background and rationale behind a request. You just put pieces together until they fit, but that takes much longer than it would if you had a strategy in place. Asking “why?” helps you get the information you need to build the most efficient strategy — and then execute it.

I was once scoping out a project and kept overhearing that a certain idea had been tried many times before and never worked. We’ve all heard this argument before. With the opportunity to get background information by asking strategic questions, new technological advancements, and new perspectives from diverse team members, something that didn’t work five years ago might work now.

Until you ask why something did not work, you will not be able to move forward and propose the best solution. If previous work was halted by a major roadblock, start with understanding if anything has changed to eliminate the barrier before investing a lot of time and resources that could be used elsewhere.

Also, do not assume that people who say “it cannot be done” are closed minded. Instead ask “why?” and then actively listen to the explanation behind the statement. The answer will provide you with a better understanding of what bumps in the road have already been encountered, and allow you to determine what can be done to clear a path toward the goal.

  1. Expand the scope of problems you can solve

When someone presents you with a problem to solve and you skip the investigative process of learning why the problem needs solving, you are only solving problems at a micro level.  You may provide an answer, but was it to the right question?

When you start asking “why?” and understand how the problem you are solving connects to the bigger picture of what the team is trying to accomplish, you will propose solutions that impact the overall organization and are built for scalability.

I was on a team that was asked to build a tool to validate performance data entered into a system. Our team could easily do that, but if we took the task at face value and solved it, we would not have uncovered other problems we could have solved along the way.

By asking why this problem existed, we learned there were some data quality issues. After asking why there were data quality issues, we learned that human error that occurred during data entry impacted the validity of the data.

Having this background information helped our team not only build a solution to solve the initial problem, but also integrate components to mitigate some of the data quality issues. Taking measures to validate data on this project set the organization up for success when that same data could be used, with confidence, for future projects.

This outcome was a success for the organization, but also a success for the professional development of our team. We went from simply executing a solution, to developing a strategy that affected an entire organization, showing that we could take on greater challenges at a larger scale.

In the end, we are all problem solvers. Asking “why?” will help us not only invest time into solving the right problems in an efficient manner, but also to help us grow professionally, dive deeper to gain understanding, and drive impact across the broader organization.

Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in GlamourFast Company and the Huffington Post.

After Solar Impulse, Kassalen helped Covestro develop its strategy for materials for the future of mobility, and shared her work at conferences around the United States. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now applies her problem-solving skills to the finance industry, where she works with teams to develop big data strategies and implement innovative technologies.

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