Our analysis of a problem, our conclusions, and actions are guided by the statement of the problem. Also, the statement of a problem depends on our perspective and self-interest driven by our biases and mindset. Often the first statement of the problem isn’t correct or tends to confuse a statement of observed symptoms with the actual problem.

If a problem is not defined or stated well, our analysis goes off into the weeds and we can waste a lot of time trying to solve the wrong problem or coming up with a solution that doesn’t fit. If we don’t know what problem we are tying to solve, it becomes difficult to come up with a good solution.

By putting some work up front in the definition and correct statement of the problem, we can start our analysis pointed in the right direction and working on the real problem. The work is required because it is difficult to overcome our mindset and biases – we have to overcome our natural tendencies that can lead us astray. (Patterning, focusing, seeking explanations, looking for supporting evidence, etc. See The Thinkers Toolkit and Pragmatic Thinking for a more detailed discussion of these items and to find the citations for the original psychological studies that illustrate these problems.)

Okay, it’s a good thing to make sure we are solving the right problem, but how do we do this? Problem restatement.

Goal:

The goal of the exercie is to open our thinking by brainstorming and restating the problem in as many different ways we can. We want our thinking to diverge and throw out as many different ways of looking at the problem as possible without evaluating each statment – just say it, record it, and move on to the next one, we will evaluate each one when we are done. We want to change and broden our perspective – looking for the themes of the problem at a high level and identifying the core issues. We want to gain the broadest perspective we can.

Note: As we restate the problem, we may identify that there is more than one problem. Keep going, getting to the essence of the problem allows us to have time during the analysis and decision making steps.

Technique:

Capture all the problem statments you can during this exerciese and write them down. We then evualuate the problem statement and select the one that best defines the problem. We write this down as the agreeded upon problem statement as we move into the analysis and solution definition phase.

Remember the point of the exercise is to broaden our perspective and thinking on the problem not to solve it.

Pitfalls in problem definition:

The Thinkers Toolkit lists a number of ‘pitfalls’ in problem definition:

1.) No focus – defintion is too vague or broad.

If the statement is too broad or generic, it doesn’t really define the problem.

2.) Focus is misdirected – definition is too narrow.

This assumes the root cause of the problem from the start. The defintion of the problem is colored by the mindset and biases and we don’t know if it the real problem or the first thing that came to mind.

3.) Statement is assumption driven.

When assumptions are made, there problem is often too narrowly defined. If the assumption is not valid, the problem statment can misdirect the focus of the analysis.

4.) The statement is solution driven.

When the problem is stated such that it assumes a solution, the problem is defined too narrowly. If the the assumed solution is inappropriate, the problem statement misdirects the analytic focus.

To avoid these issues and drive to a more useful problem statement use the following techniques: (Again, these are taken from The Thinkers Toolkit)

Techniques to avoid pitfalls of problem statement:

1.) Paraphrase: Restate the problem using different words without losing the original meaning.

2.) 180 degrees: Turn the problem on it head.

3.) Broaden the focus: Restate the problem in a larger context.

Narrow yes or now questions don’t lead to much analysis – broaden the problem statement such that it encourages consideration of alternatives.

4.) Ask “Why?”: Ask why of the initial problem statement. Then formulate a new problem statement based on the answer. Then ask “why?” again, and restate the problem based on the answer one again. Continue asking “why?” until the ‘real’ problem emerges.

Additional Tips and Techniques:

1. Make the problem statement simple.

2. Make the problem statement positive.

3. Make the problem statement using active voice. (actor-action-object)