Problem Solving: Designing a Sweet and Simple Approach

When I think of problems, I often think of a course I took a number of years ago. The instructor of the course apparently loved ice cream, so he used a carton of ice cream as his focus for a lesson on designing solutions to problems. He plopped a carton of delicious ice cream on the counter (imagine it being your favorite flavor) and paused for a bit, looked at the class, and eventually asked, something along the lines of, “What seems to be the problem?”

Without knowing what exactly the instructor meant by this question, it was difficult to properly answer. Fortunately, the question was not a graded assignment. The problem, as identified by the instructor, was that the ice cream was stuck in the carton; meaning, it was not in a bowl about to be eaten. I sat there thinking that I would have never thought of that being the problem, but as he continued on, it started to make more sense.

As the lesson progressed, he described the design process that occurred that eventually led to the creation of the ice cream scoop. It started with a flimsy spoon and progressed through multiple iterations of design that eventually led to a strong and sturdy ice cream scoop that successfully removed the frozen treat from the carton, thus proving to be the needed solution to the previously identified problem.

Lauren Amico, a Senior Editor at Harvard Business Review, recently wrote a brief and important article titled How to Solve Problems[JB1] . According to Amico, the five stages of problem solving are as follows: Define the Problem, Generate Solutions, Evaluate Solutions, Pick a Solution, and Make a Plan

Thinking about the ice cream illustration, it became clear that there were multiple lessons to be learned. The main one being, similar to Amico’s first stage in the process, the importance of properly identifying the correct problem. In order to properly identify the actual solution, you must first identify the right problem. If the identified problem is wrong, there’s a good chance that the identified solution will also be wrong.

The ice cream illustration was a perfect complement to Amico’s five stages of problem solving. Not only did she stress the importance of defining (identifying) the [right] problem, she continued on with the notion of generating and evaluating solutions, much like the iterative design process that moved from one unsuccessful, non-sturdy spoon to a successfully sturdy spoon – the eventual solution that was selected (picked)!

As you continue on with your day to day operations, keep in mind these important problem solving principles as you consider your next steps and how you approach the future of work. Once the right problem has been identified, thus leading to the right solution, make a plan for implementation.

Depending on the size and scope of the problem, when it’s finally solved, there may not be anything better and more satisfying than a big bowl of ice cream to celebrate solving the problem. Hopefully you have a sturdy ice cream scoop to solve the problem of the ice cream being stuck in the carton so that it can more quickly be moved to your bowl and consumed in victory!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jeff Boian is a manager at Morrison working primarily in our People Solutions practice. To get in touch with Jeff, reach out to him by email at or by phone at (530) 809-4679


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