1. Define the problem.

Identify the right problem

There is no substitute, the successful resolution of a problem requires for you to identify the right problem.

Identifying the right problem requires identifying the right key question and its environment. Each problem should have only one key question: the overarching question you propose to answer. The key question will have sub-questions, or sub-issues, but there is only 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 the right subject with the right scope. The goal here is to address the real problem, not one of its symptoms or another real problem but less important or less urgent.

Identify the right problem


You only need to consider two kinds of key questions: why and how. Why analyses are diagnostics: we’re interested in finding the root cause of a problem. How analyses are about finding alternative ways to solve a problem. A complete problem solving analysis requires a why and a how phase (and it can be counterproductive to jump to the how analysis too early).

To identify the right problem, identify the right key question

The key question must also be part of an introductory flow—a {situation, complication, key question} sequence—that takes you and your audience from all the possible questions 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, i.e. the persons you will need to convince for your solution to work. The decision makers are the people that will give you a green light or not. They are the formal chain of command that your recommendation needs to go through to get approval. The stakeholders are the people that, 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 revolves around 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 logical answers to your key question that you decide not to probe. You may want to summarize the problem’s vital characteristic in writing.

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