How to Define (and Not Define) a Problem

Mark Galley


Cause Mapping

Most people agree that the first step of problem solving is defining the problem. What people disagree about is how to do that. It’s common for companies to define the problem either by crafting a problem statement or by debating what “the problem” is.

Too often, a problem statement can become a lengthy exercise in group writing and word smithing. Problem statements and executive summaries are usually written in an arbitrary order, making readers skim the text to locate valuable information. In addition, we often see people referring to an entire incident as “the problem” or, conversely, identifying the problem as only one effect or one cause. Because an incident consists of multiple interconnected cause-and-effect relationships—looking for one “problem cause” doesn’t provide the complete picture. Yet, people will mistakenly identify one of the effects as “the problem,” and frequently, there’s no changing their mind, leading to arguments and disagreements.

There’s no need to argue about the problem. Individuals naturally see problems differently, but problems within an organization shouldn’t be defined by individual points of view, but rather, they should be defined by any adverse outcome to the organization’s overall goals. In the Cause Mapping method, the first step is to define the problem by answering four questions in an easy-to-read form.

The 4 Questions of the Problem Outline

We define every incident with these four questions:

  • What What’s the problem?
  • When When did it happen?
  • Where Where did it happen?
  • Goals How were each of the organization’s goals impacted?
1. What?

The first question is, “What is the problem?” People see problems differently. The purpose of this question is capture what people see as the problem, from their point of view. This question is not intended to find the one “right” problem but can include multiple answers and perspectives.

2. When?

The second question is, “When did the incident happen?” Date and time are normal for organizations to capture. A timeline can be useful to complement this question. The timeline is a simple way to capture what happened and when within an incident.

It’s also important to understand the context of the incident by capturing anything that was different, unusual or unique around when this incident happened. These differences provide additional insight into the issue.

3. Where?

The third question is, “Where did this occur?” You can think of the where and when as the setting of the incident—the time and place. But when you ask where something happened, the answer isn’t just the geographic location. It can include the name of the company, a particular department, unit, piece of equipment, stakeholders and work process.

4. What is the Impact to the Goals?

The fourth question is, “How was each goal adversely affected?” This is where the magnitude of the issue and its consequences are captured. While the first question is from the individual's perspective, the impact to the goals allows you to capture how the consequences relate to the organization's point of view.

The last item in the goals section is frequency. It's asking, “How many times has this issue happened?” It brings attention to small problems that happen frequently and, thus, have an impact that may not be fully realized. You can have a relatively small problem in your business, but the frequency is so high that it's a much larger problem annually.

In our workshops, we teach people how these four basic questions—what, when, where and goals—break into 15 essential pieces of information to provide a complete problem definition. People will learn how the different perspectives from individuals across departments can be aligned into the organization’s overall objectives. Even though people may see a problem differently, the Cause Mapping method provides an objective way to come together and define a problem.

Interested in learning more about how to define a problem? Check out our upcoming public workshops.

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