Finding the right problem to solve is the most important part of the problem solving process, because it is the foundation for all of the work that follows. If you can’t clearly define the problem at this stage, you may head off in the wrong direction and your time and effort in creating a solution can be wasted. Because each small step in the process seems “right” because it is based on the previous step, the cumulative effect of an ill-defined problem often isn’t discovered until a great deal of work has been done.
The definition of the problem and identifying its root cause need to be the focal point of your investigative efforts.
As project manager, one of the most important aspects of your role is to prevent your team from jumping into solutions too early on in the process, regardless of how much experience or enthusiasm they might have.
The quality of the solutions that you and your team come up with will be in direct proportion to the quality of the description of the problem you’re aiming to solve. Not only will your solutions be more abundant and of higher quality, but they’ll be more easily implemented. Most importantly, you’ll have the confidence to be tackling a clearly defined and worthwhile problem.
Defining Open and Closed Problems
In approaching any kind of problem, it is vital to understand whether you are faced with an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ problem, because they are defined differently and sold in a different manner within the corporation.
Where the system is working according to its current definitions and parameters, but we want to improve upon it or change it in some way, this is known as an open or achievement problem. We need to plan those changes and implement them methodically so that the system can continue to function as we make changes to it.
An open problem is defined as whatever is preventing you from achieving different or improved operation of the system.
Open problems occur when we want to achieve an objective but there are certain obstacles blocking our progress. These problems can be subdivided into three groups:
- Failing to achieve an objective, such as a sales target.
- Having the possibility to improve on a current objective, such as increasing profitability.
- Creating a new objective, such as the introduction of a new product or service.
Ask the question “What is it supposed to do?” If what it’s doing is what it’s supposed to do, but you would rather it did it better, you have an open problem.
For example, if a new competitor enters your market with a disruptive technology, you are faced with an open problem. You can broadly define the ideal outcome as maintaining your market share, but the ways in which you will need to achieve that are not at all clear.
Preparing a company for a stock market flotation is another open problem. There is an end result that is easy to understand, but the route to achieving it is not yet clearly defined.
Where the current situation is not what was expected, problems are known as closed or maintenance problems. The machine, process or system in question was working, and now isn’t. We need to resolve the problem in order to restore the system to its normal state of operation.
A closed problem is defined as whatever is preventing you from maintaining normal operation of the system.
Closed problems occur when something has happened that should not have happened, or something we expected to happen has not happened, so there is a deviation from the normal or expected state of affairs.
Ask the question “What is it supposed to do?” If what it’s supposed to do is different to what it is doing, you have a closed problem.
For example, it could be the unexpected resignation of a key member of staff, the failure of the principal speaker to arrive at a conference or a breakdown in a manufacturing production line. The cause (or obstacle) may be known or unknown, but something needs to be done about it in order to restore the system to its expected condition.
Once we’ve classified a problem as open or closed, we can follow the same problem solving process, however our actions and starting point will be different. In open problems, one typically has to identify the underlying issues that are “affecting what you want it to do better” and then by how much you want to do it better. In closed problems, you typically don’t go through this phase because the problem is quickly identified by whatever is now not working.
While it may seem like an obvious step, defining the problem is not always as simple as it sounds. In some cases, people might mistakenly determine the wrong source of a problem, which will make attempts to solve it inefficient or even useless. This is especially true when you have an “accident waiting to happen”, where you must decide if the underlying conditions or the triggering event are the cause of the problem.
For example, if a raw materials supplier changes a specification, the quality of a product may reduce. Customers might notice this, but might not feel that it is a major problem. However, if the marketing department rewrites the product literature to increase customers’ expectations of quality, then the gap between expectation and reality is widened, triggering an increase in product returns. Which of these conditions is the root cause, and which do you address in your definition and your approach?
Diagnose the situation so that your focus is on the problem, not just its symptoms. Helpful techniques at this stage include using flowcharts to identify the expected steps of a process and cause-and-effect diagrams to define and analyse root causes. Overall, you must carefully balance your empathy for the people affected by the problem with your objectivity.
A common difficulty during this stage is negative thinking, where you might hear phrases such as “We can’t” or “That will never work” or “This will cost too much”. You can reduce this negativity by asking how a solution could work, rather than asking whether it would work. Presuppose success, and presuppose that resources or cultural constraints have no bearing on the availability of a solution.
Investigate causes and circumstances of the problem, probing for details such as its origins and causes. Investigating facts is usually more productive than trying to solve the problem right away. Fictional detectives often have an enthusiastic assistant who wants to rush towards the obvious, when they know that there is more value in careful observation first. Sometimes, the process of defining a problem reveals that it doesn’t require any action, perhaps because it will disappear by itself and not recur, or because the actual loss or potential gain is small compared to the cost or effort required to solve the problem.
Defining Open Problems
Open problems, where there are a number of possible solutions, require a definition which broadens the search for solutions. Thus defining open problems is a creative, divergent process.
Open problems are defined in terms of goals. Write the objectives as a statement of what you want to achieve by solving the problem. The definition needs to be precise and purposeful, but at the same time identify any of the possible goals which would deliver your overall objective.
In order to define an open ended problem, explore a number of possible goals and then define precisely those which you want to achieve.
You will need to focus on the problem area and create a foundation for forming alternative goals and routes to a solution. One way to do this is to define the problem in terms of “How to” statements, such as “How can we raise the finance for business expansion?”
There is usually more than one way of looking at a problem.
- You can define this one as…
- But the main point of the problem is…
- What I would really like to do is…
- If I could break all the rules I would…
- The problem is like…
- An even stranger way of looking at it might be…
Now look at your original definition. Do any of your redefinitions help you to see the problem in a different and perhaps more effective way?
If you tested many different open problems you would find that usually they do not have a single definition. For example, “How to increase sales?” could be restated as:
- How to make our product more saleable?
- How to improve our market share?
- How to make our marketing more effective?
- How to make our sales team more effective?
- How to increase sales margins?
- How to increase sales order value?
- How to increase the number of sales?
- How to increase our win rate?
- How to increase customer value?
Trying to find a single definition severely limits the scope of possible solutions. Sometimes what appears to be a single problem is in fact a collection of several smaller, related problems. In the example above, we have multiple definitions because the word “sales” is vague and the word “increase” doesn’t quantify what should be increased and by how much. It might mean increase sales activity, as opposed to sales results, for example.
Inaccurate or misleading definitions can result in ineffective solutions. An effective definition accurately represents the key features of the problem in a way which gives direction to your work in solving it, and problem situations have to be investigated thoroughly before they can be defined effectively.
The more precise the definition, the greater your chances of finding an effective solution.
Use this check list to review how thoroughly you have defined a problem.
- Can this objective be divided into several sub-goals?
- Is this objective the ultimate goal in solving the problem?
- Is achieving this objective simply a route to achieving another objective?
- Are there other related objectives?
- Can this obstacle be sub-divided?
- Does this obstacle really prevent me reaching this objective?
- Are there other related obstacles?
- >Does this obstacle prevent me reaching other objectives?
- Does this definition take account of the needs of others who are involved or who may be affected?
Open problems are related to a need or desire to improve upon the current situation and there is an inevitable risk that you may fail to benefit, or even change the situation for the worse. As a safeguard against this happening you should make a detailed comparison of the benefits of the current situation with those you will achieve by reaching your objectives. This will enable you to look for solutions which retain the valuable aspects of the current situation. You should be prepared to forfeit these only when they are clearly outweighed by the benefits of achieving your objectives. This type of analysis will also help you to measure the potential gain and estimate the practical limit of your resources in finding a solution.
Defining Closed Problems
Closed problems, where finding a solution first involves finding the cause, require emphasis on identifying and specifying the possible causes. Thus defining closed problems is an analytical, convergent process.
A widely used technique for defining closed problems is the Kepner-Tregoe approach, which helps to systematically analyse and define all aspects of the problem situation. It consists of answering a series of questions about the situation, such as:
- What is the problem?
- What isn’t the problem?
- What is distinctive about it?
- Where is the problem?
- Where isn’t the problem?
- Who/what does the problem involve?
- Who/what doesn’t the problem involve?
- When did or when does the problem occur?
- When didn’t or when doesn’t it occur?
- What is the same when the problem occurs?
- What is different when the problem occurs?
- What is the extent of the problem?
- Is the problem getting bigger?
- Is the problem getting smaller?
- What is distinctive about its change in size?
In combination, the answers to these questions build up a detailed picture of the problem which can suggest possible causes. However, when you use the Kepner-Tregoe method it’s important not to jump to conclusions, instead testing each possibility to see if it fits all the circumstances. This method helps to reduce that chances that someone will ‘tweak’ certain aspects of the problem to make it fit their opinion.
When applying this method to your own problems you will need to investigate the situation carefully in order to answer the questions accurately, and all the information which supports your answers should be documented so that it can be verified later. You can continue to ask the same questions until you are satisfied that you have thoroughly answered each one.
You can apply many of the techniques described for defining open problems to defining closed problems once we have identified the root cause or primary obstacle.
Problem Definition Tools and Strategies
Getting different perspectives and angles in order to clearly define a problem is a skill that can be learned and developed. Here are fifteen strategies that I have found to be most valuable.
Rephrase the Problem
Words carry strong implicit meaning and, as such, play a major role in how we perceive a problem. “Increase productivity” might seem like an outcome that only serves the business, while “make your job easier” implies more of a benefit for staff, from which the company also benefits. In the end, the problem is still the same, but the feelings and the points of view associated with each of them are very different.
Play freely with the problem statement, rewording it several times. For a methodical approach, take single words and substitute variations. For “Increase sales”, try replacing ‘increase’ with ‘attract’, ‘develop’, ‘extend’, ‘repeat’ and see how your perception of the problem changes. Substitute “margin”, “orders”, “repeat orders” or “customer value” for “sales”. A rich vocabulary plays an important role here, so you could use a thesaurus to help suggest substitute words.
Expose & Challenge Assumptions
Every problem, no matter how apparently simple it may be, comes with its own assumptions. Some of these assumptions may be inaccurate and could make your problem statement inadequate or even misguided.
Assumptions represent a risk and must be recognised for what they are – short cuts that take the place of objective data. Equally, they should be discarded when they are proven invalid.
The first step to deal with assumptions is to make them explicit. Write a list and expose as many assumptions as you can, especially those that may seem the most obvious and ‘untouchable’.
For example, in trying to “increase sales”, we are assuming that increasing sales is even what we want. Increasing sales will increase orders, which could impact on quality or delivery times. Instead of increasing sales, we could change the way that we sell, or we could simply increase prices.
That, in itself, brings more clarity to the problem at hand. But go further and test each assumption for validity.
For each assumption, ask yourself, “What does it mean for this to be true?” and “What does it mean for this to be false?”
What you will find may surprise you; that many of those restrictive assumptions are self-imposed.
For example, suppose you’re about to enter the restaurant business. One of your assumptions might be “restaurants have a menu”, and so you spend significant time creating a menu, having menus printed, sourcing ingredients and training staff. While such an assumption may seem true at first, try challenging it and maybe you’ll find some alternative business models, such as a restaurant in which customers bring dish ideas for the chef to cook, or in which customer select their ingredients from a buffet and cook their meals themselves.
Expose & Challenge Boundaries
The boundaries or constraints of a situation may seem fixed and difficult to change, however history also shows that boundaries can be more flexible than anyone believes to be the case. This is because cultural rules, within society and within an organisation, develop around fixed boundaries. When those boundaries are able to move, the cultural rules remain, preventing people from challenging them. Staff are told that they will no longer be reprimanded for breaking certain rules in order to deliver good customer service, but their experience is a far more powerful motivator than the words of the CEO or HR department.
In corporate “culture change” programs, the constraints themselves are seen as the problem. You can usually be certain that those constraints were causing problems, long before the change program was conceived.
Therefore, while it is important to quantify the constraints of a situation, it is also important that you do not allow your process to become constrained by the status quo.
Expose & Challenge Opinions
The opinions of decision makers, committees or groups, or other powerful groups will be important to the success of your decision, but is also important to recognize truth, bias, or prejudice in their opinions. Whilst their opinions may not be shared by others, we can at least accept that a person’s opinions are formed for a reason that best suits that person’s interests and needs.
Broaden the Problem
Each problem is one part of a greater problem. In the same way that you can explore a problem laterally, by playing with words or challenging assumptions, you can also explore it at different “altitudes”.
If you ask questions that are too narrow, you may end up fixing the symptoms of a problem, rather than the problem itself.
If you feel overwhelmed with details by looking at a problem too narrowly, look at it from a more general perspective, asking questions such as “What is this part of?”, “What is this an example of?” or “What is the intention behind this?”.
Another approach that helps a lot in getting a more general view of a problem is replacing words in the problem statement with hypernyms.
Hypernyms are words that have a broader meaning than the given word and encompass the word and its synonyms. For example, a hypernym of ‘car’ is ‘vehicle’.
Narrow the Problem
If you ask questions that are too broad, you may not have sufficient resources to answer them effectively. Ask “What’s stopping you?” to narrow a question.
If each problem is part of a greater problem, it also means that each problem is composed of many smaller problems. It turns out that decomposing a problem in many smaller problems, each of them more specific than the original, can also provide greater insights into it.
Making the problem more specific is especially useful if you find the problem overwhelming or daunting.
Some of the typical questions you can ask to make a problem more specific are: “What are the components of this?” or “What are examples of this?”
Word substitution can be useful again; hyponyms are words that are stricter in meaning than the given one, e.g. two hyponyms of ‘vehicle’ are ‘minivan’ and ‘limousine’.
Look at the Problem from the Helicopter View
Sometimes the problem we are trying to solve isn’t the real problem at all. In order to solve a problem, we may need to take a ‘helicopter view’ of the situation. From a different vantage point, we may discover that the problem we have focused on is in fact part of a bigger problem which would require a completely different solution. By understanding the problem in its context, you can begin to see it in perspective.
Find Multiple Perspectives
Before rushing to solve a problem, always make sure you look at it from different perspectives. Looking at it with different eyes is a great way to have new insight on overlooked directions.
For example, if you are trying to increase sales, try to view this problem from the point of view of someone else, such as a customer who may be willing to pay more for a product that is packaged differently or has additional features.
Rewrite your problem statement many times, each time using one of these different perspectives. How would your competitors see this problem? Your employees? Your family?
Also, imagine how people in various roles would frame the problem. How would a politician see it? A college professor? A doctor? Try to find the differences and similarities in how these different roles would approach your problem.
Use Effective Language
There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ formula for properly crafting the perfect problem statement, but there are some language constructs that can help to make it more effective.
- Assume a multitude of solutions. An excellent way to start a problem statement is: “In what ways might I…” This expression is far superior to “How can I…” as it hints that there are a multitude of solutions, and not just one, or maybe none. As simple as this sounds, the feeling of expectancy helps your brain find solutions.
- Make it positive. Negative sentences require a lot more cognitive power to process and may slow you down — or even derail your train of thought. Positive statements also help you find the real goal behind the problem and, as such, are much more motivating. For example: instead of finding ways to ‘prevent system failures’, you may find that ‘increase system reliability’ or ‘increase user productivity’ are much more worthwhile and productive goals.
- Frame your problem in the form of a question. Our brain loves questions. If the question is powerful and engaging, our brains will do everything within their reach to answer it. We just can’t help it: Our brains will start working on the problem immediately and keep working in the background, even when we’re not aware of it. For example, “How many more ways can we find to increase system reliability?”
- Use a formula. If you’re still stuck, consider using the following formula for phrasing your problem statement: “In what ways (action) (object) (qualifier) (end result)?” Example: In what ways might I package (action) my book (object) more attractively (qualifier) so people will buy more of it (end result)?
Make It Engaging
In addition to using effective language constructs, it’s important to come up with a problem statement that truly excites you and your team so that you’re in the best frame of mind for creatively tackling the problem. If the problem looks too dull for you, invest the time adding vigour to it while still keeping it genuine. Make it enticing.
One way to do this is to focus on the impact of the solution, for example in delivering outstanding customer service. Just be careful not to slip into the use of generalised, corporate jargon, such as “achieve best in class cost savings”. Make your problem statement mean something, both to you and to the people who will help you to solve it.
Reverse the Problem
One trick that can help when you’re stuck with a problem is turning it on its head.
If you want to win, find out what would make you lose. If you are struggling finding ways to ‘increase sales’, find ways to decrease them instead. Then, all you need to do is reverse your answers. ‘Make more sales calls’ may seem an evident way of increasing sales, but sometimes we only see these ‘obvious’ answers when we look at the problem from an opposite direction.
This method may not seem intuitive at first, but turning a problem on its head can often uncover solutions that are not obvious when you’re trapped by the need to improve or increase something. Being able to reverse the problem also creates the sense that the problem itself is not a binary situation, solved or unsolved, it is a situation that you have complete control over.
Map Out The Problem
Rather than talk about the problem, it is also important to be able to visualise it, especially if the problem is an abstract collection of business processes.
Rather than looking at process diagrams, think of more creative ways to represent the problem. By visualising a problem, it is often easier to spot issues such as missing pieces or duplication.
CATWOE is a useful acronym for helping you consider all of the elements of a people or organisational problem.
- Customers – Who are the stakeholders?
- Actors – Who is involved in solving the problem?
- Transformation Process – What processes or systems are affected?
- World View – What is the big picture?
- Owner – Who owns the system that contains the problem?
- Environmental Constraints – What are the constraints on the problem and a likely solution?
Your Problem is Defined When
You can regard the problem as “defined” when everybody who reads your problem statement:
- Understands what the problem is.
- Understands what will be different when the problem is solved.
- Agrees that the statement adequately describes the problem.