What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?

Dennis Burianek is Head of Business Transformation at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and a graduate of the MIT EMBA class of 2018.

When I decided to apply to the MIT Executive MBA, I had reached a point in my career where I felt like I had reached a plateau in my current situation and I had a desire to continue growing.  I had held leadership roles for nearly a decade and learned, experientially, many lessons along the way but I wanted to continue to improve as a leader.   At roughly the half way point in my career I started to wonder what impact I was having on my organization, my staff, and society as a whole.  With a full-time job and a family adding an intense 20-month MBA program was ambitious, but the mission of MIT Sloan, “to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world” drew me back to MIT to continue my education.  Now as I approach the end of the program, I look back and think that it was one of the best decisions I could have made for my career.

I knew the course work would be rigorous and that I would learn an immense amount of material.  What I didn’t fully appreciate was how quickly I could take what I learned on the weekend and apply it at work the next week.  One of the most critical lessons I learned is one of the simplest: What problem are you trying to solve?  This simple question that we learned on Organizations Lab can be applied to a wide range of workplace situations and really cuts to the core of the problems we all face in our day-to-day lives.  Asking this simple question and not stopping until you understand the core issue and not just the surface issue or the solution disguised as a problem, can really save a lot of time and energy.

I have been using this question in a number of different scenarios at my office.   In my new role focused on improving efficiency and business processes, this question is essential to success.  In an environment with hard-working and dedicated staff, it becomes easy to focus on finding solutions before we fully understand the problem.  It can lead to silos where one group solves the problem they are having and doesn’t look outside their needs to see if others have a similar problem or need for change.  By asking questions rather than proposing solutions, another technique I learned in the MIT EMBA program, my team is getting to the core issues and how they can span many different areas or groups.  These questions really force people to look beyond their local problems and try to solve them on a larger scale.

Lastly, there was one benefit of the MIT EMBA that I didn’t expect.  Learning about leadership and the social science research foundations, I hope has made me a better leader at the office.  The same principles of how people think and approach problems, how to negotiate, and how to resolve conflict, are also applicable at home and leading me to be a better spouse and parent.  After all, the best way to make a difference in the world might be to raise caring and thoughtful children who will contribute to the future as much as I hope to.