What is the Problem?

What is the problem

For most people it seems that work and life are a whole series of problems. No sooner is one solved than another arises.

Yet other people seem to spend too much time ‘solving’ something that isn’t a problem in the first place or come up with an excellent new solution for something that didn’t need changing.

The core issue here is the inability of us and them to identify what is truly a problem. This is why there is a simple process to succeed with what is the problem.

3 Questions for Problem Identification

Problems fall into various types. Start by being asking three questions:

  1. Is this problem tangible and obvious? Our invoices show sales are lower this month. Or, is it vague and uncertain? I feel we’re not hitting the sales target for a reason.
  2. Is the problem a performance or process issue? These are distinctly different. In the former someone or something as has not performed; in the latter it’s the system or process that has failed.
  3. How did it happen? Was it suddenly or over time? This again allows us to work out if it’s a one-off or a systematic issue.

While the questions may appear simple, the aim is true understanding so always be objective rather than taking easy answers. Do not rush to problem definition or evaluation. The biggest issue here are the filters we use based on our professional experience, the information available and perhaps personal prejudices. Be aware that how we phrase an issue will lead us to a conclusion.

3 Behaviours that Help Problem Identification

Many fail to differentiate clearly between causes and symptoms of a problem. Consider the failure to meet deadlines consistently. Is that poor performance by an individual or the result of giving them far too much to do? Often people solve the symptom which exacerbates the cause. Dismissing Drew the deadline-misser rarely achieves more timely delivery!

Key here is the development of helicopter vision and systems thinking. How wide do you need to go to fully understand the problem’s root causes and effects? This also means simplifying where possible the complexity that results. Problems are not simple but solutions can be. Here it’s necessary to think and talk in terms of influencing factors and relationships. Drew misses deadlines because everyone misses deadlines without punishment; or it’s only punished in this department; or he’s never understood the importance of a deadline as a fixed concept.

Most problems are circular and never have just one answer. Systems thinking allows a view of the whole, the interrelationships and necessary feedback loops.

Don’t Jump Ahead

At this stage of the process, you are not attempting to solve the problem. This is about being clear of all the elements of the identified problem. Only then you can move to the second stage of defining the problem clearly before evaluating potential solutions.

Getting into the routine of identifying problems correctly leads to future time-saving. This comes from truly solving the problem and building stronger systems where the problems and opportunities that arise are more easily solved.