Sunday, 29 April 2012

What is the problem?

I got to meet accounting students in my various capacities in the accounting profession over the years. I like to engage them as they would be the future accountants and leaders for the country. The key reason behind these engagements is to provide them with the insights of the real world that they will face and what they need to do while they are at universities.

One of the topics which I normally cover with them is about problem solving. Off course professionals are hired to help organizations to solve problems and how effective they are able to do this would determine their value to the industry. Different from the university environment where students are given problems and they are required to provide their views and solutions, in the real world the first challenge is to identify what is the problem in the first place. In most cases, what is perceived to be the problem is only the symptom and further work need to be done to identify the real issue.


Problem solving or problem identification require strong analytical thinking. The issue need to be framed based the available facts and further analysis may be required. If we start this process using the wrong question, the answer may not resolve the real problem. What I notice here is that asking question is not something that many people are comfortable with.

When we ask question, we are probing status quo. Many people perceive status quo based on their knowledge, experience, availability of information and even their values. When people are asked questions, they need to provide explanations. While this sounds easy, not many people including those occupying high positions could do this with comfort. Why? Some may just assume that status quo is such and such but may not have a clue whether that is true or not. What more when the "truth" means they have to admit their weaknesses and incompetencies. Thus, culturally, we may not like people asking penetrating questions even when we know they honestly want to solve our problems.

So, we need to encourage students to be brave in asking questions. Instead of blindly doing so, they need to learn to link the facts that they have and the issues on hand. Some may face pushback but in most cases, push backs means they are on the right track as people will not be behaving as such if those questions do not matter. Off course some may need more time to pick up this skills but the more they try, they more they would master the art of asking question. Perhaps, this is the reason why doctors ask us many personal questions before they decide how to deal with our sickness. 

The next challenge for the students is to figure out the meaning of facts which they obtained from the answers gathered. There are many ways to do this including using mind map as a tool. The idea is to spot trends or patterns which could provide the clues to the answers. 

Some people use a different approach is solving problem. Once the problems are understood, they would list down the options and work backwards to gather data or facts to support those options. This process would enable them to eliminate weaker options and could save a lot of time as well.

I hope the lectures are not complaining when their students ask tough and challenging questions. We, people working in the real world, face these sort of challenge on a daily basis. Identifying unknown problems and working on solutions which may not be in any textbook certainly demand for handwork and perseverance. In any case, our value in the eyes of our stakeholders is based on how relevance we are to them. If we create more problem than value, don't be surprised if they will look elsewhere for their solutions.


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