Problem Definition

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The next step in the creative problem solving process is to identify the problem. This module will explore why problem solvers need to clearly define the problem. It also introduces several tools to use when defining a problem and writing a problem statement.

Defining the Problem

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When a problem comes to light, it may not be clear exactly what the problem is. You must understand the problem before you spend time or money implementing a solution. 

It is important to take care in defining the problem. The way that you define your problem influences the solution or solutions that are available. Problems often can be defined in many different ways. You must address the true problem when continuing the creative problem solving process in order to achieve a successful solution. You may come up with a terrific solution, but if it is a solution to the wrong problem, it will not be a success. 

In some cases, taking action to address a problem before adequately identifying the problem is worse than doing nothing. It can be a difficult task to sort out the symptoms of the problem from the problem itself. However, it is important to identify the underlying problem in order to generate the right solutions. Problem solvers can go down the wrong path with possible solutions if they do not understand the true problem. These possible solutions often only treat the symptoms of the problem, and not the real problem itself.

Four tools to use in defining the problem are:

  • Determining where the problem originated
  • Defining the present state and the desired state
  • Stating and restating the problem
  • Analyzing the problem

You may not use all of these tools to help define a problem. Different tools lend themselves to some kinds of problems better than other kinds.

Determining Where the Problem Originated

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Successful problem solvers get to the root of the problem by interviewing or questioning anyone who might know something useful about the problem. Ask questions about the problem, including questions that:

  • Clarify the situation
  • Challenge assumptions about the problem
  • Determine possible reasons and evidence
  • Explore different perspectives concerning the problem
  • Ask more about the original question

If you did not define the problem, find out who did. Think about that person’s motivations. Challenge their assumptions to dig deeper into the problem. 

Defining the Present State and the Desired State

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When using this tool, you write a statement of the situation as it currently exists. Then you write a statement of what you would like the situation to look like. The desired state should include concrete details and should not contain any information about possible causes or solutions. Refine the descriptions for each state until the concerns and needs identified in the present state are addressed in the desired state. 

Stating and Restating the Problem

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The problem statement and restatement technique also helps evolve the understanding of the problem. First write a statement of the problem, no matter how vague. Then use various triggers to help identify the true problem. The triggers are:

  • Place emphasis on different words in the statement and ask questions about each emphasis.
  • Replace one word in the statement with a substitute that explicitly defines the word to reframe the problem.
  • Rephrase the statement with positives instead of negatives or negatives instead of positives to obtain an opposite problem.
  • Add or change words that indicate quantity or time, such as always, never, sometimes, every, none or some.
  • Identify any persuasive or opinionated words in the statement. Replace or eliminate them.
  • Try drawing a picture of the problem or writing the problem as an equation.

Analyzing the Problem

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When the cause of the problem is not known, such as in troubleshooting operations, you can look at the what, where, who, and extent of the problem to help define it.

What? – “What” questions help to identify the problem. Use “what” questions both to identify what the problem is, as well as what the problem is not. “What” questions can also help identify a possible cause.

Where? – “Where” questions help to locate the problem. Use “where” questions to distinguish the difference between locations where the problem exists and where it does not exist.

When? – “When” questions help discover the timing of the problem. Use “when” questions to distinguish the difference between when the problem occurs and when it does not, or when the problem was first observed and when it was last observed.

Extent? – Questions that explore the magnitude of the problem include:

  • How far vs. how localized?
  • How many units are affected vs. how many units are not affected?
  • How much of something is affected vs. how much is not affected?

Examining the distinctions between what, where, when, and to what extent the problem is and what, where, when and to what extent it is not can lead to helpful insights about the problem. Remember to sharpen the statements as the problem becomes clearer. 

Writing the Problem Statement 

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Writing an accurate problem statement can help accurately represent the problem. This helps clarify unclear problems. The problem statement may evolve through the use of the four problem definition tools and any additional information gathered about the problem. As the statement becomes more refined, the types and effectiveness of potential solutions are improved.

The problem statement should:

  • Include specific details about the problem, including who, what, when, where, and how
  • Address the scope of the problem to identify boundaries of what you can reasonably solve

The problem statement should not include:

  • Any mention of possible causes
  • Any potential solutions

A detailed, clear, and concise problem statement will provide clear-cut goals for focus and direction for coming up with solutions.

Case Study

Cassidy and Dan were stuck negotiating prices for a new product they’d introduced. The toy cost a certain amount to manufacture, but the price was too high to successfully market and mass produce, whilst making a profit. Dan suggested they use the Stating and Restating method to state and restate the problem, and discuss the positives of the situation and how to best approach solving it. Cassidy and Dan brainstormed and restated their issues with funding as well as the cost of producing their toy and finally came to a solution which would help them produce and sell the toy at a profit. Cassidy and Dan were happy to implement this idea and see their business prosper in the long run.