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The Problem is Defining the Problem: 4 Questions to Ask to Deliver Better Results

Author: John I. Howell, III, Senior Vice President of Consulting, 3esi-Enersight

Innovative solutions are most likely to occur when the problem being solved is extremely well defined.  Unfortunately, many people fail to properly define the problem they are solving, resulting in incomplete solutions or solutions to the wrong problem altogether.

I remember being asked to solve a seismic modeling problem involving high velocity rocks overlying slower velocity rocks.  My team and I toiled for several weeks to develop an elegant solution to this problem in the Rocky Mountains where high velocity rocks are thrust over slower velocity rocks.

When we presented the solution to the executives we were disappointed to learn that we had solved the very specific problem they discussed and not the more general version of the problem they had envisioned.  Furthermore, the execs had hoped our solution would allow them to bid on a challenging opportunity, but our solution was not robust enough.

4 Questions to Ask to Form a Better Problem Statement

My team and I could claim that the executives were at fault for not telling us the whole story, but in reality the issue was that we failed to draft and verify a robust problem statement before we began work.  We could have preserved the opportunity by asking more questions before we charged off with assumptions. We should have tried to fully understand:

  1. What are the implications or impact of a successful solution?
  2. Who will realize the impact of a successful solution?  Who else can benefit from the solution?
  3. When does the problem occur and when is a solution required?  What time, cost, resources, and limitations must be considered?
  4. How will we solve the problem?

Understanding the Seismic Modeling Problem Further

A thorough problem statement for the seismic issue would have looked like this:

Clearly state the problem:

We want a seismic modeling methodology that will simulate acoustic wave propagation involving velocity inversions ranging from .5x to 2x in simple or complex structures.

Define the implications:

Today we cannot handle higher order velocity inversions resulting in misplaced subsalt wells ($150M) and failure to identify traps in complex structures ($5B missed opportunity) and all such modeling is done by research personnel.

Define the constraints:

We need a preliminary solution for sub-salt traps within six weeks for the GOM (usable by research staff).  A more robust solution will open plays in thrust belts around the world and is needed within six months for use by business unit teams.

Define the methodology:

We anticipate modifying existing finite element 3D propagation models to allow rapid iterations on alternate subsurface models.

Although this example focuses on a geophysical problem in oil and gas, the same consideration should be given to problem statements planning departments put forth for consideration.  Teams need to consider the following;

  • What is the complete business issue?  In what order do we need to solve the issues??
    • If the intent is to improve the consistency of data for corporate planning, will solving one BU’s consistency issue really move the needle for corporate?
  • What impact will the solution have on the business?
  • How can we quantify the impact of a successful solution?
    • Being more efficient is important but reducing the planning cycle by 1 week out of 20 (5%) may not be material
    • Improving transparency and data QC to avoid a 35 day recycle of the plan is material
    • Transparency and data QC impact the teams that prepare the data but they also impact the executives since the data will be more trustworthy and lack of recycle time provides more time for executives to think with the data
  • What outside resources, such as technology or advisory consulting, do we need to gain maximum insight into the business challenges?

Sustainable growth with 3esi-Enersight

Organizations that apply these concepts and develop the skills and discipline to ask better questions and define their problems with more precision can unlock revolutionary innovation, and create tangible opportunities for sustainability and growth.

The 3esi-Enersight Strategic Consulting Group applies structured consulting services to get at the heart of real business problems across upstream oil and gas. Learn more. 

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About the author:

John Howell has been leading decision makers through a structured and facilitated portfolio management process for more than 25 years. Passionate about helping businesses make better decisions, his client list includes start-up firms, Fortune 500 companies, multi-national energy firms and national oil companies throughout Asia and the Americas. As Senior Vice President, Consulting, John leads the 3esi-Enersight Strategic Consulting Group, and helps to provide strategic leadership for the company. Read more about John on the 3esi-Enersight Leadership Page.

One of our favorite quotes:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

-Albert Einstein