“There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope.” – Bernard Williams
One of the most important parts of the creative problem solving process is to identify the problem. In this blog we will explore why your team needs to clearly define the problem before they can solve it. We will also introduce several tools to use when defining a problem and writing a problem statement.
Defining the Problem
Defining the problem should be the first step in your team’s creative problem solving process. When a problem comes to light, it may not be clear exactly to your team what the problem is. The team must understand the problem before they spend time or money implementing a solution.
It is important to take care in defining the problem. The way that your team defines the problem influences the solution or solutions that are available. Problems often can be defined in many different ways. The team must address the true problem when continuing the creative problem solving process in order to achieve a successful solution. The team may come up with a terrific solution, but if it is a solution to the wrong problem, it will not be a success.
In some cases, taking action to address a problem before adequately identifying the problem is worse than doing nothing. It can be a difficult task to sort out the symptoms of the problem from the problem itself. However, it is important to identify the underlying problem in order to generate the right solutions. Problem solvers can go down the wrong path with possible solutions if they do not understand the true problem. These possible solutions often only treat the symptoms of the problem, and not the real problem itself.
Four tools your team can use in defining the problem are:
- Determining where the problem originated
- Defining the present state and the desired state
- Stating and restating the problem
- Analyzing the problem
The team may not use all of these tools to help define a problem. Different tools lend themselves to some kinds of problems better than other kinds.
Determining Where the Problem Originated
Successful problem solvers get to the root of the problem by interviewing or questioning anyone who might know something useful about the problem. The team should ask questions about the problem, including questions that:
- Clarify the situation
- Challenge assumptions about the problem
- Determine possible reasons and evidence
- Explore different perspectives concerning the problem
- Ask more about the original question
Defining the Present State and the Desired State
When using this tool, your team will write a statement of the situation as it currently exists. Then they will write a statement of what they would like the situation to look like. The desired state should include concrete details and should not contain any information about possible causes or solutions. They should then refine the descriptions for each state until the concerns and needs identified in the present state are addressed in the desired state.
Stating and Restating the Problem
The problem statement and restatement technique also help evolve the understanding of the problem. First the team writes a statement of the problem, no matter how vague. Then they use various triggers to help identify the true problem. The triggers are:
- Place emphasis on different words in the statement and ask questions about each emphasis.
- Replace one word in the statement with a substitute that explicitly defines the word to reframe the problem.
- Rephrase the statement with positives instead of negatives or negatives instead of positives to obtain an opposite problem.
- Add or change words that indicate quantity or time, such as always, never, sometimes, every, none or some.
- Identify any persuasive or opinionated words in the statement. Replace or eliminate them.
- Try drawing a picture of the problem or writing the problem as an equation.
Analyzing the Problem
When the cause of the problem is not known, such as in troubleshooting operations, your team can look at the what, where, who, and extent of the problem to help define it.
What? – Use “what” questions both to identify what the problem is, as well as what the problem is not. “What” questions can also help identify a possible cause.
Where? – “Where” questions help to locate the problem. Use “where” questions to distinguish the difference between locations where the problem exists and where it does not exist.
When? – “When” questions help discover the timing of the problem. Use “when” questions to distinguish the difference between when the problem occurs and when it does not, or when the problem was first observed and when it was last observed.
Extent? – Questions that explore the magnitude of the problem include:
- How far vs. how localized?
- How many units are affected vs. how many units are not affected?
- How much of something is affected vs. how much is not affected?
Examining the distinctions between what, where, when, and to what extent the problem is and what, where, when and to what extent it is not can lead to helpful insights about the problem. Remember to sharpen the statements as the problem becomes clearer.
Writing the Problem Statement
Writing an accurate problem statement can help accurately represent the problem. This helps clarify unclear problems. The problem statement may evolve through the use of the four problem definition tools and any additional information gathered about the problem. As the statement becomes more refined, the types and effectiveness of potential solutions are improved.
The problem statement should:
- Include specific details about the problem, including who, what, when, where, and how
- Address the scope of the problem to identify boundaries of what you can reasonably solve
The problem statement should not include:
- Any mention of possible causes
- Any potential solutions
A detailed, clear, and concise problem statement will provide clear-cut goals for focus and direction for coming up with solutions.