Seven Steps to Consistently Great Problem Definitions

A problem well-put is half-solved.

John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, 1938

Problem solving is a critical skill and one that’s consistently on the list of most-wanted competencies by employers. Solving a problem begins with defining the problem, yet this step is often short-changed because we like to jump to solutions. This results in a poorly defined problem, which in turn leads to three possible outcomes ranging from bad to worst in terms of wasted resources and frustration:

  • The solution is inefficient, and we get only a partial benefit from our investment in solving the problem.
  • The solution is ineffective, because we are not solving the right problem, and we get no significant benefit – but also no significant harm – from our investment.
  • The solution is so misguided we create new problems, making necessary additional investments in remediation.

To avoid going down the wrong problem-solving path, use a consistent, proven process for defining problems. All effective problem solving methodologies start with some variation of a definition process before they move on to the rest of their four steps or eight steps or twelve steps. The problem with these problem-solving methodologies is that they frequently don’t give much detail on the definition phase.

We’re here to help! Take a look at the image above for a seven-step process for defining any problem that ensures the application of best practices at each step. Below we include more detail on the critical first step of assembling the problem definition team.

Note that this process assumes a preceding process where a problem was selected for further definition. The problem selection process is very similar to project selection, where the output is a prioritized list of problems for the organization, business unit, or team. A second way that a problem can be selected is simple exigency, where an urgent need or circumstances force the consideration of the problem.

Get the team right!

In the same way a successful problem solving journey begins with a single well-crafted problem statement, a successful problem definition process begins with a carefully selected team. There are a number of variables that need to be considered:

  1. Size. A team of three to five people is generally best. Much larger and there are too many competing voices and people may be encourage to just go along for the ride.
  2. Diversity. More is almost always better. Diverse perspectives on the team ensure that bias is challenged and a fuller spectrum of possibilities is considered. Possible exceptions include an extremely short time horizon; a highly constrained decision environment due to safety, regulatory or other factors; or the need for a high level of team cohesion that may favor existing relationships and cultural and linguistic uniformity.
  3. Roles. A problem may touch a number of business units and/or functional areas, so having roles related to each might be desirable. A related variable is the involvement of subject matter experts. General best practice is to engage experts as outsiders to ensure their opinions do not limit creativity.
  4. Psychology. A high degree of comfort with being wrong is desirable. Being able to float ideas, consider them, take what is useful and abandon what is not is necessary to progress. A personality that tends to double down on a single idea is not helpful.
  5. Dynamics. Everyone on the team needs to commit to creating a safe space for expressing opinions, to making and accepting challenges to opinions, and to sharing responsibility for the product they are creating together.
  6. Decisions. Decision making will generally fall into one of two options: either one person will make the final decision on whether the problem statement passes the stress test, or the team will make the decision together, either by majority or some other proportional agreement. Factors like time, desired level of decision quality, and need for stakeholder buy-in may affect the type of decision.

The goal of the team is to foster creativity and innovation in defining the problem, in order to get the scope and level of analysis right. As with so many things in life, get the right people on board and anything is possible!