1. Define the problem

Identify a good problem

When first confronted to a problem, we tend to think that we know what the problem is and we jump straight into “solving mode.”

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?

You should concentrate on solving a good (or acceptable, or excellent) problem.

Identifying a good problem requires identifying a good key question and its environment. A central theme of this methodology is that you should 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 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, when you’re addressing a good problem, you aim at addressing what matters, not just a symptom or another real problem but less important or less urgent.

Identify a good problem and summarize it in one key question

You only need to consider two kinds of key questions: why and how. 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 and your audience 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 logical 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 the critical problem-definition step in your resolution requires you to make important decisions already.

Want to get started? Check out how to frame problems.

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