What’s the Problem? Problem-Solving Lessons-Learned from Moneyball

One of the most important steps in solving any problem is defining exactly what the problem is.  This week, with the magic of video, I wanted to share with you a great example of how this seemingly simple step can be so critical in reaching a successful outcome.  See if these movie clips strike you the same way they did me, and have you re-thinking how you think about problem-solving.

What's the Problem - Problem-solving Lessons Learned from Moneyball

Are We Sure We Know What the Problem Is?

We’ve all heard it before:  the classic first step to the problem-solving process is to ‘define the problem.’  It is the most important step, seemingly the simplest, but also the one most likely to trip us up.

Too often we assume we already know what the problem is, and try to save time by leap-frogging a few steps ahead.  We go straight to assessing possible solutions.  But that’s where we get in trouble, especially when we think we have seen this problem before. 

The team that finally won the Kremer Prize for human-powered flight across the English Channel beat the other teams when they realized that everybody else was trying to solve the wrong problem.  As their aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready famously said, “The problem is that we don’t understand the problem.

Last week I was spinning away on my exercise bike in the garage watching the movie Moneyball to pass the time.  Early in the movie, a scene occurs that beautifully portrays this whole idea, and so of course I had to share it (as soon as I finished my 25 miles).

“We’re Very Aware of the Problem”

Brad Pitt’s character,  Billy Beane, is the General Manager for the Oakland Athletics baseball team.  The A’s have one of the smallest budgets in the entire league, making it difficult for them to acquire talented players.  Compounding this disadvantage, they have recently lost three of their best players to richer teams who lured them away with bigger paychecks.  The A’s find themselves with gaping holes in their roster, especially at first base, where Jason Giambi used to play.

In this scene, the draft is coming up, and Billy is meeting with his most experienced baseball scouts to begin the process of making up for these losses.

As discussion opens, the scouts are weighing the relative merits of various players.  But very quickly, Billy becomes frustrated with the direction the discussion is taking.  Watch as he begins to challenge their thinking about the problem they are trying to solve.  (Warning – some coarse language)

Stuck in Old Ruts

The scouts have done what so many of us do.  They skip that first step altogether, assuming they already know what the problem is.  They continue to rely on old ways of thinking, and use subjective or irrelevant metrics to evaluate potential solutions. 

Whether it is the shape of a player’s jaw line, the sound the ball makes when it hits their bat, or how attractive their girlfriend is, lack of a clear definition of the problem makes it very difficult to know if their candidate players will be able to actually help solve it.

Perhaps the approach the scouts used had been effective in bygone decades.  But Billy has come to realize that following the same thought-path they always took was not going to solve their problem any more.  If they approached the game the same way the richer teams did, they were certain to lose.

This is the pivotal moment when what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle forces innovation, and ultimately results in a better solution. 

With the help of character Peter Brant, a Yale-educated economics major, Billy learns to see the game of baseball in a new light.  The changed perspective opens the door to a solution.

Watch in this second clip as Billy redefines the problem using a single objective measurement:  how likely is a player to get on base – the “On Base Percentage.” 

The Problem – Reimagined

They don’t lay it out in the movie, but the A’s refined problem statement may have been something like:

Draft players for the Oakland A’s 2002 season with the highest possible on-base percentage at the lowest possible cost in order to make the playoffs.

Armed with their new approach, they can now view the available player options in a very different light than other baseball teams.  As a result they are able to identify several undervalued players who meet their criteria.  For what they used to pay one star player, they are able to afford three players who theoretically will be just as effective in the aggregate.

This clearer definition of the problem also helps them ignore things that really are not essential to helping them solve it.  What a player looks like has no direct bearing on his ability to get on base.

Worthy of note:  a key piece to the new definition came through Pete, a baseball outsider, and the statistical lens through which he viewed the players.  

Often, the perspective of someone outside the problem can help refocus the thinking of those who are in it. Click To Tweet

And as in the real world, accepting this change of thinking does not come easily, especially among the most experienced people in the room.   There is likely to be some friction.

Of course, as a Hollywood product, you can bet the writers did their best to accentuate the conflict between the new thinking and the old.  There is a lot Billy could have done to build understanding and cooperation among the scouts rather than antagonizing and devaluing them, but that’s a post for another day.

Still, the example is a good one as an illustration of how the way we frame the problems we face has a huge impact on our ability to solve them.

Einstein realized this when he said:

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. - Einstein Click To Tweet

What’s the Problem – The Takeaway

Success in solving thorny problems does not begin with skipping the first and most important step of the process.  We save time and effort in the long run by being as clear as possible about what the problem really is that we are trying to solve before we start trying to solve it.

Framing the problem differently can be the catalyst for exactly the kind of new thinking our team needs to find a solution.  Questions we can ask ourselves when struggling to define a problem include:

  • What are we assuming is true, and how can we verify it?
  • Could fresh eyes help us see it differently (change the people in the room)?
  • What would an outsider think of this?
  • Do we have people with the right (or wrong) expertise involved?
  • Are we looking at this from the right perspective (customer/owner/employee/other)?
  • Are we measuring what is really important, or just using the available metrics?
  • What does success look like?

Defining the problem ends when we have developed a clear problem statement that everyone understands.  Then, with the whole team looking for the same thing, we can begin the process of finding workable solutions.

Lead On!

* Moneyball the movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Michael Lewis, an excellent read if you like baseball, David vs. Goliath stories, or thinking creatively about complex problems.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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