BRM Tools: The problem with problems – Problem Explorer

The words of one school teacher stick in my mind – “bring me solutions, not problems”. Encouraging a (perhaps lazy) student to try to solve things for themselves before reaching out for help was no bad thing, but it is far from ideal for the Business Relationship Manager. People want to be helpful but in doing so they are sharing their perception of reality, which is often not the whole picture.

Ensuring that you’re solving the right thing comes long before trying to do it in the right way. Even if you’re presented with a solution then it is always worth exploring what the problem was that led to this being proposed. It is your opportunity to learn, but also to reshape thinking, to give a new perspective, and to show the value in working with you in the future. Remember, just as much as people like telling you your wrong, so they also like telling you why they are right. By allowing the other party in the conversation to boast about how they arrived at their conclusion, your ability to listen will open up new avenues to probe.

Being intentional is an idea that we keep coming back to. The model, and remember it’s a model to help you be less wrong, is again a way to be intentional in your approach to going behind the problem as presented to you and to explore it in collaboration.

The Problem Explorer

There are five stages that we go through to explore a problem – Impact, Cost, Barrier, Workaround and Options.

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The first stage in exploring a problem is to get the person to open up and describe what it is they’re attaching the problem statement to. This works especially well if you’re being given a solution but can be just as effective if there is good early engagement and nothing has been defined. The “five-whys” questioning approach is a similar tool – you keep pressing and asking ‘why?’ until nothing more is given. By going down this route you can get beyond what is experienced or perceived to be happening and start to see what is going on.

This phase aims to understand the impact that is being felt on the customer, the business, a process or some other entity and why that matters. Crucially you’re also going to learn here if this is a problem that you should be fixing. Not all problems do need to be fixed. Unless someone is feeling pain and it is having an impact on the delivery of their objectives or the things they think are important, getting sponsorship to invest and change will be a challenge.


This second stage is a step in building up a narrative on why there should be a change. Most people will have some idea of what the consequences of not taking action in response to the impacts will be. This may be a financial cost, it may be a time to deliver or it could be impacting quality and customer satisfaction. By exploring this with the business partner you are understanding if there is a benefit to secure and will making change worthwhile.

These two stages focus your conversation on working on the right thing (not the thing that you’re told about) and from all the right things you identify to fix, you’re picking the ones that will secure the greatest benefit for the organisation as a whole.


Most people aren’t helpless and want to sort things out when they can do. If the problem has not been fixed so far and you’re not involved as a Business Relationship Manager then there must be reasons why it is still an issue. Knowledge of the barriers to fixing the problem tells you something about how the problem is perceived and areas of focus to avoid being stuck in the future. As you explore the barriers to fixing the issue you’ll also be linking back to the impact as the reasons why something hasn’t been done often tell you something about the nature of the problem. What doesn’t work is just as useful as knowing what does work at this stage of problem exploration.


In the same way, people tend not to leave problems they think they can fix, it’s also often the case that people will have found a way to minimise the impact by putting in place their solutions. This could be a manual process such as copying data from one place to another, it may be using another application (perhaps one the company doesn’t authorise) – I call this “hacking the future” – or there may be other things at play to create the graceful swan appearance to the customer whilst people are frantically kicking away under the water in a back-office.

As you understand how the workarounds are operating then you start to link back to the impact and cost that this issue is having and build more of the case for change. Any workaround is going to be less efficient than sorting the problem. If you’re able to solve this issue and free up time with a back office team what else would they be able to deliver? Fixing problems doesn’t just focus on avoiding cost but also creating new opportunities. As the Business Relationship Manager, you’re looking out for these things so that you can secure as much value as possible from the investment the organisation is making.


It is worth reviewing everything that you have talked through and discovered to come up with some possible options. This isn’t an attempt to solve the problem rather just to have ideas of how things could be done. Again, once people are given the space to suggest what they would do, you start to see that the possible fix points to areas of the problem that haven’t yet been articulated.

There can also be benefits in talking through the things that could make the impact of this problem occurring much worse. These contributory factors can then be isolated and you can start to explore the opposite action and see if that will be a way to improve things.

Finally, it is worth taking the options and going back to the impacts and costs you first uncovered. As you do this you not only test the description of the problem but also build the links across the whole discussion to create a compelling narrative to take action. For the BRM, the benefit now is that you’ve co-created the problem statement and the possible options. You’re valuable to the business partner as the recipient of the future solution because you’ve worked with them to define the next steps and they’ll see you as part of getting a successful result.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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