DAVID L. PETERSON

Defining the Problem

Four men in a meeting, brainstorming on a white board with sticky notes.

I had a recent online exchange with a colleague. He had responded to a post I’d made regarding how to use creative brainstorming to harvest new and unusual solutions to a problem. But he had a problem about his problem.

Here was his original text to me: Hey David, Thanks for the tip yesterday about finding a solution. Do you have any favorite techniques for defining the problem? I find I get wrapped up in my view or interpretation of the problem. Going to try the Five Whys approach today on several problems to try to identify root causes.

He had identified an issue that throws off many of my strategic planning clients, so I want to address it here. If you don’t have a well-defined problem, how do you know you are brainstorming the right solution?

I sent him this text in response: That’s a great question. Just so I have a frame for what you’re asking—Are you defining the problem for you or imagining the problem from the perspective of a potential model client?

I wanted to know if he was trying to define a problem he had or a problem someone else had. This is an important distinction because the more information I know about the situation, the more accurate I can be in defining the problem.

He responded: I want to define it as the prospect would. Get away from my own bias.

My colleague is very intelligent, and he knows we all have built-in biases that cloud our ability to ideate objectively.

I answered: Perfect. Next, is the problem a finite one? Put another way, can it be specifically measured? For example, needing to lose weight is a finite problem—I need to lose 30 pounds. Non-finite problems are not as easily measured. For example, wanting to advance your career is not as finite as wanting to be promoted to VP of Marketing. Another finite problem I use as an example is getting more people to take public transportation, which is much easier to measure than getting more people to care about the environment. How do we measure how much someone cares?

We now have the second problem qualifier. Are we talking about a finite problem or a non-finite one (as opposed to an “infinite” problem, which is a whole different kettle of fish …)? You would not be shocked to know that finite problems are much easier to define.

His response: Non-finite.

My answer contains the rest of the explanation: OK, so we have a non-finite problem that we need to define, right? So by definition, the problem is not going to be clear-cut. Make sense? The biggest issue with problem definition is trying to finitely define a non-finite problem. It’s very frustrating.

Here is a method I have used to success: Start with boundaries. Left and right riverbanks are how I like to think of them. I picture I am in a sailboat beating upstream against the wind. There is a left bank and a right bank. I can maneuver all I want, but I can never go past the two banks. So, can you define the riverbanks for the problem? Is the problem between this and that? Is it more than this, but less than that? Whatever the subject or target of the problem is will help define the terms you’ll use for the riverbanks.

Once you have the riverbanks established, you’ll need to figure out how defined they are. Make your definition more specific. The wider the distance between the left bank and the right bank, the broader the problem is. However, you can now create a written definition of the problem.

Think about how you are defining problems. Is this your problem, or are you trying to solve someone else’s problem? Can you overcome your biases? Is the problem finite or non-finite? Perhaps you are misdefining problems, which makes it difficult to come up with good solutions. Try the method above and shoot me a text (229-630-1000) if you have any examples that are vexing you. I’ll feature them and my proposed solutions on a future post.

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