Working on the Right Problem

Accountability Books Empathy


Key Point: Learning how to frame the real problem is very difficult. Dr. Bernard Roth is a prominent Stanford engineering professor, co-founder of its famous, and believes the process of design thinking can help everyone form the kind of lifelong habits that solve problems, achieve goals and help make our lives better. It is also an important tool to help us frame up and focus on the REAL issue. If we don’t have that skill, we often keep working on the wrong “problem” and wonder why we’re not getting desired results.  

“We are all capable of reinvention,” says Dr. Roth, who is also the author of the book, “The Achievement Habit.” And design thinking is the premise behind developing reinvention in the form of personal achievement.  

It focuses on five steps, and Roth suggests the first two are most important.

Step 1: “Empathize” — Learn what the real issues are that need to be solved.

Step 2: “Define the actual problem” — A very challenging task to be sure we’re working on the right issue.

Step 3: “Ideate” — Brainstorm, make lists, write down ideas and generate possible solutions.

Step 4: “Build” — A prototype or create a plan.

Step 5: “Test” — The idea and seek feedback from others…

One example Dr. Roth uses to make his point is a person who wants to find a life partner. As part of the empathy step, ask yourself, ‘What would finding a partner or spouse do for me?’ One answer might be that it would bring you companionship. The next step is to reframe the problem: ‘How can I find companionship?’ There are more and easier answers to the new question — you can meet friends online, take classes, join a club, take a group trip, join a running group, get a pet and spend time at the dog park.’ Finding a spouse now becomes simply one of many possible ways to find companionship,’ Dr. Roth says. ‘By changing the question, I have altered my point of view and dramatically expanded the number of possible solutions.’

‘Design thinking on the highest level is a way of reframing the way you look at the world and deal with issues, and the main thing is this idea of empathy,’ Dr. Roth says. ‘If you have tried something and it hasn’t worked, then you’re working on the wrong problem.’”

Character Moves

  1. Learn more about the process of design thinking and how to apply it at work and in your personal life. I strongly suggest reading Roth’s book “The Achievement Habit.
  2. Understanding and learning how to better empathize continues to be an important gateway for progress in both our business and personal lives. Asking the right questions, driven by exploring empathy helps us frame up the right problem. Let’s work on those skills. Do you really know if you’re empathetic with yourself? What questions to you ask yourself? How do you know you’re framing up the right “problem?”

Design Thinking in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: I’m all for thinking things through, but these days, the word “empathy” is also a big red flag for me. Sadly, some people can fake being empathetic (usually for their own personal benefit), so you just have to be mindful. Many times, you can overthink things too. When it comes to the real stuff, like Dr. Roth refers to (finding partners and other serious life and work issues), design thinking sounds awesome. But, if a co-worker tries to design-think where to go get lunch, I don’t believe that’s a person I’d enjoy having lunch with anymore. 

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis.