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Consortium for Service Innovation

6) Seek to Understand Before Seeking to Solve

Leverage Our Collective Knowledge

In the context of KCS, "seek to understand before seeking to solve" has two implications:

  1. seek to understand the requestor's (or customer's) issue
  2. seek to understand what we collectively know about this issue

...before seeking to solve the issue.

The first involves being literal: listening and asking clarifying questions to understand as much as possible about the situation. The second means finding out what we collectively know about the issue by searching the knowledge base early in the process, and often after that. The effectiveness of searching is dependent on a thorough understanding of the situation.

Seeking to understand before seeking to solve establishes a complete context for a situation and enables us to find what we collectively know about that or similar situations. Seeking to fully understand first may feel like it is slowing down the process, but the research shows that the opposite is true. Attempting to solve a problem before we fully understand the situation takes longer and  leads to rework.

"Seek to understand before you seek to solve" is widely recognized as a valuable practice.  It is one of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, documented by Stephen R. Covey in the book by the same name.  It is also a fundamental premise of the Kepner-Tregoe problem solving process. In the 1950’s Dr. Charles Kepner and Dr. Benjamin Tregoe conducted research to find out why some people are better problem solvers than others.  What they found was natural problem solvers are very aware of their decision making process and conscious of the difference between understanding and solving.  Good problem solvers have the ability to listen objectively, collect and clarify the facts, and establish connections between information before they applied analytical or diagnostic skills.  A little bit of structure in the process is very helpful and promotes the creation of well-structured knowledge.

Well-structured knowledge can help us become better problem solvers. By seeking to understand before seeking to solve - and capturing, structuring, and searching - the resolver is organized and focused. In addition, searching provides insight as to how others have approached and resolved similar issues.

Capturing the requestor's experience (and giving it a little bit of structure) establishes a complete perspective on the issue, and a complete description of the environment.  Using this context to search improves search results. Equally important is the idea that searching is creating. The requestor's words and phrases as they describe the issue is the content we will add to an existing article to improve it. Or, if an article doesn't exist, those words and phrases we used to search are the beginning of a new article: searching is creating.

Reuse of knowledge is a key benefit in doing knowledge management. We want to use the talent in our organization to solve new issues, not to reinvent answers to questions that have already been solved. Solve it once, use it often!


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