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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Preparing for Brainstorming
Before we learn ways to generate solutions in the problem solving process, we will prepare the way for creativity. This module introduces common mental blocks to productive brainstorming, as well as techniques for dealing with the mental blocks. It also presents some ideas for stimulating creativity.
Identifying Mental Blocks
Brainstorming can help you arrive at a solution to the problem, even for problems that seem unsolvable or that seem to only have inadequate solutions. However, before beginning a successful brainstorming session to generate ideas, you must remove any mental blocks. Mental blocks can eliminate great solutions before they are thoroughly examined as possibilities or springboards to other possible solutions.
There are many types of mental blocks. Most blocks to problem-solving fit into the following categories.
• Emotions: Emotional blocks can include anything from a fear of risk taking to a tendency to judge or approach the problem with a negative attitude.
• Distractions: Too much information, irrelevant information, or environmental distractions can prevent a productive brainstorming session.
• Assumptions: If problem solvers assume there is only one correct solution, they will be unable to generate additional ideas. Assumptions also become mental blocks from stereotypes or perceived boundaries where none exist.
• Culture: Culture defines the way we live and limits the ideas we may generate or consider. However, not every culture is the same. Sometimes the cultural blocks are unnecessary, and sometimes we do not consider cultural limitations when we should.
• Communication difficulties: If we cannot communicate our ideas in some way – speaking, writing, or pictures – these communication difficulties can block our progress in generating ideas.
Removing Mental Blocks
So what do you do when you identify a mental block? Carol Goman has identified several structured techniques for blockbusting.
The first technique is an attitude adjustment. To remove blocks arising from a negative attitude, list the positive aspects or possible outcomes of the problem. Remember that problems are also opportunities for improvement.
The next technique deals with risk taking. To remove emotional blocks arising from a fear of failure, define the risk, then indicate why it is important. Define what the worst possible outcome might be and what options there are in that scenario. Think about how to deal with that possible failure.
The next technique encourages you to break the rules. Some rules are important, but when rules create an unnecessary imaginary boundary, they must be disregarded so that problem solvers can come up with innovative solutions.
The fourth technique is to allow imagination, feelings, and a sense of humor to overcome a reliance on logic and a need to conduct problem solving in a step-by-step manner.
The fifth technique involves encouraging your creativity. We’ll look at that in more detail in the next topic.
The creative problem solving process requires creativity. However, many people feel that they are not creative. This is the sign of a mental block at work. Everyone can tap into creative resources in their brains. Sometimes, it just takes a little extra prodding.
Creativity is not something to be turned on and off when needed. The potential for creativity is always there. We just need to learn how to access it.
Here are some tips for creating a creative mental space to encourage productive brainstorming sessions.
• Go outside for a few minutes, especially for a nature walk or bike ride. Exercising and getting sunshine even for just a few minutes are sure ways to redirect your brain to a more creative outlook.
• Change your perspective. Work on the floor or go to the park for you brainstorming session.
• Breathe deeply. Especially when stressed, we tend to become shallow breathers. Fill your entire lungs with air to get some extra oxygen to your brain. Practice deep breathing for 5 to 15 minutes for not only more creativity, but for a great burst of energy.
• Meditate. Focus intently on a candle flame or find another way to quiet your mind of all of your responsibilities and distractions. For a group, try guided meditation.
• Write in a journal. Write for 15-20 minutes in a spare notebook or plain paper. It does not have to be about the specific problem you need to solve, but you may discover some mental blocks if you do write about the problem. Dump all of your mental clutter on to one to three pages that no one will ever see (unless you want them to).
Then let the pages and their recorded thoughts go, even if just in your mind.
Once you get your creative juices flowing, keep them going by trying the following ideas everyday:
• Carry a small notebook or jot ideas in your PDA. Be prepared for ideas whenever they come. Ideas often come as you are drifting off to sleep or as you are waking.
• Stretch your boundaries by posing new questions to yourself, learning things outside your specialty, or breaking up set patterns of doing things.
• Be receptive to new, fragile ideas that may still need time to develop.
• Be observant of details, including self-details.
• Find a creative hobby, including working puzzles and playing games.