Identify a good problem

Identify a good problem

Jul 2, 2010

When confronting a challenging problem, we tend to think that we know what the problem is and we move straight into "solving mode," what my colleague Albrecht Enders calls jumping to solution.However, for complex problems, this perceived problem seldom is what we should focus on. Instead, we should focus on solving the actual problem. But that creates its own set of challenges, because you can never be sure that a problem is the actual one. So, what should you do?

Meet the key question

Instead of focusing straight to whichever question is obviously the one that you should answer, you should first consider all the relevant questions about your problem, and how they interconnect. Next, identify the key question—the one question that, if you answer it, will solve your problem—and its context, which you can summarize in a SCQ sequence. Indeed, it is a central theme of this methodology that you have only one key question. For sure, the key question will have sub-questions, but there is only one all-encompassing question.“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.” – Peter Drucker

A good key question must address a good subject with a good scope. That is, it helps you address what matters, not just a symptom or another real problem but less important or less urgent.

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The key question encompasses all the relevant aspects—and only the relevant aspects—of your problem.As such, a key question should always start with a "how," such as "how may I do … ?". However, to ask an insightful how, you might first need to identify the root causes of your problem, which you can do by asking why. Why analyses are diagnostics, they're problem centric: We’re interested in finding the root cause of a problem. How analyses are prescriptive, they're solution centric: We're interested in finding alternative ways to solve the problem. A complete problem-solving analysis requires both a why and a how phase (and it can be counterproductive to jump to the how analysis too early).

To identify a good problem, identify a good key question

Your key question is part of a broader introductory flow—a {situation, complication, question} sequence—that takes you from all the possible problems in all the parts of the universe to the one you are specifically interested in solving.

To fully define your problem, you also need to identify its environment, which requires identifying the decision makers and the stakeholders, that is, the persons you will need to convince for your solution to work. The decision makers are the people who will green light your solution (or not!). They are the formal chain of command that your recommendation needs to go through to get approval. The stakeholders are the people who, without having formal authority on your recommendation, can profoundly influence if it will work or not.

Furthermore, you will need to have a clear understanding of what will make your problem-resolution process a high-quality one. This usually requires describing how you will involve the decision makers and the stakeholders in the resolution process so as to reduce the potential obstacles they could put in your path.

Also relevant is specifying the goals of your project and defining how you’re going to implement it (time, budget, equipment, people, etc.).

Finally, specify the actions you could pursue but decide not to (the out-of-scope considerations). In this section you’ll include all the logically valid answers to your key question that you decide not to probe. You may want to summarize the problem’s vital characteristic in writing, in a problem identification card.Note that this critical problem-definition step in your resolution requires you to make important decisions already.Want to get started? Check out how to frame problems.


Chevallier, A. (2016). Strategic Thinking in Complex Problem Solving. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, pp. 21–44.Enders, A., et al. (2016). "Stop Jumping to Solutions!" MIT Sloan Management Review
57(4): 63.