July 4, 2010

Build a problem identification card

The first step in the problem solving process is to identify precisely the problem you want to solve. That entails synthesizing the relevant information. Building a problem identification card can help you do so.

We already discussed in another entry the information that you should use to define your problem. This entry clarifies how you should organize that information.

Give your problem to read to someone that doesn’t know about it

The context is the introductory flow. Starting with the situation and including the complication, it gets to the key question. When you’re deciding what elements to include, the hard part is not to identify what you should include but rather what you should leave out. Many times we are tempted to add irrelevant information because we fail to recognize its irrelevancy.

Fortunately, there is one simple test to ensure that what you have in there is what you need and that it is clear and concise. Write up your context in a problem identity card and give it to read to someone that doesn’t know about your problem. If she can read it and understand it in one go, then you’re done. Otherwise, go back and improve it: eliminate items that are unnecessary, add the necessary ones that you forgot, and edit for content and format (including punctuation).

A problem identification card summarizes the vital information about your problem

A problem identification card summarizes the vital information about your problem.

Ask “so what?”

In my experience, good problem identification cards are always shorter than one page and the situation and complication are usually no more than a couple of lines.

(Out of the hundreds of cards that we have developed in my class, the best ones have always been surprisingly short.) We have a tendency to include too much and, as a result, to cloud the real issue. So take a particular care to evaluate each piece of information that you’re including, ensuring that you understand its “so what?” and that its presence in the introductory flow is critical to the problem definition.

2 Comments on “Build a problem identification card

Venkat Mahalingam
November 15, 2011 at 21:25


This is an interesting section. Can I please get a copy of a sample identification card?

Thank you,

November 15, 2011 at 21:29

Here is an example.

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