How to avoid problem-solution thinking

Transport challenges are complex and dynamic, and usually don’t have agreed solutions.

To solve transport challenges or problems, you need to involve a range of key stakeholders who have a keen interest, often with disparate views on what to do. Key stakeholders have a significant interest in the problem or can have a major influence on the approach taken to address the challenges.

As professionals, we are charged with solving problems and usually have our own preferred solution to most transport challenges – but beware of the trap of ‘problem-solution’ thinking.

This results from jumping to the solution immediately a problem is raised, and then unfortunately, vigorously defending this solution, and not leaving open the opportunity to consider other viable options.

For example, there may have been an increase in the number and severity of crashes on a particular section of motorway. Key stakeholders could promote their preferred solution, such as “… more speed cameras” or “… reduce speed limits“, which may be alternative options to solve the problem, but not necessarily the best, or even the most feasible solution in the specific context.

Or traffic congestion is being experienced by commuters resulting in grid lock for extended periods each day in key locations, and key stakeholders are suggesting “… the government needs to build a new light rail line” or “… reduce fares for public transport” or “… introduce congestion charging“, again all potential solution options, but what is really achievable and value for money?

How to avoid problem-solution thinking

1. Make the problem explicit.

Disconnect the problem from potential solutions and clearly define the issue in specific detail – describing the cause and effect.

2. Identify key stakeholder views

That is what each stakeholder wants to achieve – you should particularly engage with those able to contribute to the solution. Others may have strong views, and if they have influence, it would be smart to at least hear their views. For a specific issue, there will often be conflicting objectives. By going through the process of detailing each stakeholder’s views you have a much better chance of understanding the complexity of the problem and identifying opportunities to find complementary parts to a solution.

3. A well defined problem statement

This includes the following elements: (a) the current or emerging undesired situation, (b) the desired future situation (c) the gap between undesired and desired situations, and (d) what is the downside in getting to the solution (which is the reason that the problem isn’t easily solved!). A common mistake is that the downside is not made explicit.

4. Identify potential solutions.

Only after the problem has been explicit defined, possible solutions to the problem can be developed and evaluated using agreed criteria.

A well defined problem statement, which focuses thinking on the problem rather than a ‘preferred’ solution and engages key stakeholders, has the potential of reaching a much better solution.

To illustrate, where traffic congestion is the current undesired situation and reliable travel times is the desired future situation, the difference is the gap. Priority for road freight transport is one way of effective use of limited road space, however the downside is that car users lose out, as they are provided less capacity.

Developing policy solutions to complex transport issues is not a simple task and as transport professionals we need to avoid the traps and mistakes that can lead to poor results.

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