Houston, we’ve had a problem.”  Yes, that is the actual quote from astronaut James Lovell on Apollo 13.   The past tense is striking, not simply because it differs from the Hollywood rewrite but because it suggests a problem that had already been solved.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  The now famous statement was, as the attached article from Inc.com might suggest, a very poor problem statement indeed.

The Inc.com article quotes Professor Nelson P. Repenning of the MIT Sloan School of Management, who argues that clearly articulating problems is a critical and often overlooked management skill.  I, for one, had never considered writing down business problems in the form of stand-alone statements.  To me problems were always coupled with solutions, be they on Executive Summaries, Business Plans or Investment applications (Gust.com . . .); they did not require dedicated documentation.  Professor Repenning makes a compelling argument to the contrary.

The good Professor suggests that by failing to formulate a clear problem statement, one relies on the brain’s “automatic processor” which only accesses one’s own limited database of past experiences and immediate solutions.  More innovative thoughts and outside-the-box solutions are not considered.  This is particularly the case when problem statements incorporate solutions:  “The system is down again and requires a reboot.”  A more clearly composed statement of this IT problem would have addressed why the system went down.

You’ll be well served checking out this thought-provoking, linked article.  When you do, try not to think of the movie, Apollo 13. Consider instead an earlier Hollywood offering, one with a far better problem statement.  I refer to Cool Hand Luke, in which the inimitable Struther Martin (later of Slap Shot fame) summarizes:  What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”



MIT Professor Nelson Repenning says this skill is the best way to enhance individual and organizational problem-solving.

Source: There’s One Question You Must Ask Before Solving Any Problem (It’s Also the Most Underrated Management Skill)

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