Are you solving the right problem?

LEOs often fall into the trap of defining our end state by our tactics, rather than the outcome we actually seek; here’s why that’s a problem


This was bad. This was really bad. I was newly married and had just taken my ring off to shower, but I now watched, horrified, as it fell and ping-ponged toward the shower drain.

Had I not felt so helpless I probably would have laughed watching myself trying to trap the ring with my foot – I’ve never been accused of being coordinated and this confirmed it. But then, in one of those rare moments when time slows down and everything becomes clear, my perspective changed.

I didn’t want to trap the ring (which was a relief, because I clearly wasn’t able to). What I really wanted was to keep the ring from going down the drain! With this new perspective, I moved my foot a few inches to the right, blocked the drain, and within seconds the ring came to rest against my foot.

By correctly defining our end state we expand our horizon to consider multiple tactics, not just the first one that comes to mind.
By correctly defining our end state we expand our horizon to consider multiple tactics, not just the first one that comes to mind. (Getty Images)

In retrospect, the incident probably wasn’t as dramatic as it felt at the time – but it has had a powerful impact on how I approach problems. Just a few months later I was reminded of the lesson while on patrol. We were sent to check the welfare of a suicidal subject who, according to the third-party caller, had been cutting herself and needed medical help. After planning for several tactical contingencies, we decided to call in and ask the woman to come out so we could check on her. From several feet away I could hear the yelling from the other end of the line – I didn’t need to hear the words to understand the message, she wasn’t going to come out. This wasn’t good. We needed her to come out. Didn’t we?

The problem with solving the wrong problem

It turns out, we didn’t. Once again, I had incorrectly defined our “end state” – the outcome we were trying to reach.

Getting the woman to come out of the house wasn’t our ultimate goal, it was a tactic  (the method we used to achieve our goal). If she had she come out of the house but was covered in blood, we would still have plenty of work to do before we reached our actual end state – to ensure her safety for the night.

As soon as I re-framed our problem the answer was clear; if she wasn’t going to come out we could just change tactics. And we did.

Rather than continuing to ask her to come out, we convinced the woman to stand by a large window where we could verify she had no injuries. She agreed to the idea and, as a bonus, we could see another adult in the residence who looked equally confused about the whole situation and helped us feel justified that the woman was safe. Satisfied that we reached our new end state, we left. If we had discovered that the woman did need help, we would have adjusted our tactics once again to move closer to ensuring her safety, but this time with more information about how to do so.  

As I looked closer, I started to see this problem repeated all around me – other people also defining their end state in terms of their tactics. I spoke with a teammate who was coordinating a neighborhood event and running into significant logistical problems. It looked like the event might not happen and they were understandably upset about their pending failure. But did they have to fail? As we talked it became clear that hosting the event wasn’t really their end goal, they were actually concerned about building relationships in a troubled neighborhood – this event was just a tactic for reaching that goal. With a more clearly defined end state, they felt free to pursue a new tactic.

Why does it matter?

Isn’t this just a matter of semantics? As long as we reach a successful outcome, does it actually matter how we frame our goal? I believe it does. By defining an end state by our choice of tactics we lose sight of the bigger picture.

At best, we may not be prepared to quickly pivot when new opportunities present themselves; at worst we may double down on a tactic that isn’t working. We can find ourselves trying harder and harder to solve a problem, but not the right problem. By correctly defining our end state we expand our horizon to consider multiple tactics (not just the first one that comes to mind) and remain open to changing paths when what we’re doing isn’t successful, or conditions change.   

I currently coordinate several training events for my department, but those events aren’t my ultimate goal. In fact, I could host a logistically successful in-service and still not meet my actual objective – to improve the knowledge, skills and abilities of our officers. In-service days are a tactic for doing this, but I should always question whether they’re working and remain open to other tactics that could be more effective. So how do we make sure we’re correctly defining our end state?

Getting it right

The problem, as I’ve repeatedly learned, is that we fall victim to various cognitive biases that limit our creative problem-solving abilities. It doesn’t have to be that way though, just being aware of the problem is a big step in the right direction. These four ideas have also helped me get it right:

  • Mentally (and maybe even physically) detach from the immediate problem to look at the bigger picture. We sometimes limit our event horizon to the steps immediately in front of us (the tactics), which causes us to lose sight of the actual intended end state. By removing ourselves emotionally from the problem we can conduct an alternative analysis, where we consider other alternatives that might also bring us to a successful resolution. Doing this early in a call, or a project, helps us remain open to new solutions that may present themselves.
  • Don’t detach just once, make it a routine. If conditions significantly change, maybe your end state has as well. Continuing down the old path won’t help you solve the new problem.
  • Try the “Why Do I Care” test. Figuring out why you care about a problem may lead you to the end state you’re after. In the suicidal example mentioned earlier, we didn’t really care if the woman came out of her house, we cared that she would be safe for the night. Why do I care about the rampant speeding in my city? I want to reduce injuries and fatalities (which means I can use speed enforcement as a tool but should consider other tactics as well if tickets aren’t getting me my desired result). By asking what it is that you care about when facing a problem, you can more easily define your ultimate end state.
  • Consider other perspectives. Similar to the “Why Do I Care” test, why do other people care about this problem? By considering multiple viewpoints (from other involved parties, the community, your chain of command, etc.) you will get a better feel for what ultimately needs to happen.

Try it yourself

It’s been several years since that fateful morning in the shower. While I’m quicker to realize when I’m confusing a tactic for an end state, I still find myself occasionally getting it wrong. So, I detach, ask the questions above, and reset.

What about you? Think of a problem you’ve solved recently. How did you define your end state? Even if things turned out well, would defining your end state differently has helped you consider other tactics? I like solving problems, but I want to make sure I’m solving the right one.

Resources

Hammond JS, et al. The Hidden Traps in Decision Making. Harvard Business Review.

Heal CS. (2012.) Field Command. LANTERN BOOKS.

Willink J, Babin L. (2018.) The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win. St. Martin's Press.

Zenko M. (2015.) Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy. Basic Books.

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