Examine your problem

Being clear about what you know and do not know about a problem is a good way to begin tackling it. A structured set of questions can help you think through the different parts of a problem. It can help you agree the nature of the problem with others and identify what you need to do next.

When to do it

Do this at the start of your project.

How to do it

You should:

  • choose a ‘problem analysis model’ and complete it with your colleagues – there are some suggested in the supporting materials section

  • be as specific as you can

  • focus on the problem, not what you think the solution will be

  • focus on the whole problem – if you only consider a small part it’s unlikely you’ll find the best solution

  • focus on one problem at a time so your task is manageable

  • do not let organisational structures dictate your thinking – the problem may include things that your team is not responsible for, so do not limit thinking to your team only

  • get more information if you cannot answer all the questions or your answers are too general

  • revisit the ‘what’s the problem’ question afterwards to check you have the right question and can now refine it

Try this activity

This activity will help you agree the nature of your problem. It will give you a written problem statement.

Time, space and materials

  • 60 to 90 minutes

  • any space with a wall, sticky notes, paper and pens for a face-to-face event

  • or for a remote event use a video conference and online whiteboard that will take the place of the wall and enable participants to add and move online ‘sticky notes’

Preparation

  • stick some large pieces of paper to the wall (flip chart paper is good) or make distinct areas on the online whiteboard

  • title each area:

    • what’s the problem?

    • what’s the context?

    • how will we know when we have finished?

    • who is interested?

    • what’s in and what’s out of the question?

    • what is known and unknown about the problem?

  • space them out to create 6 areas where people can work together

People to include

  • your team, subject matter experts, the people who commissioned the work, the senior responsible owner, the policy, product or service owner

  • any number of people

  • a facilitator to give the instructions

Instructions

The purpose of this activity is to define the problem that we are working on.

  1. Start at ‘What’s the problem?’ Everyone should write what they think the problem is on a sticky note. You have 1 minute.

  2. Everyone should read out what they wrote and stick it on the wall. Group similar ideas together. You have 2 minutes.

  3. A volunteer should write a single question that reflects everything people have suggested – everyone can give them advice as they work. You have 5 minutes.

  4. Go round of all the remaining areas in turn. Each time you should: work individually to write ideas for 3 minutes; stick your ideas to the wall and group together the similar ones for 2 minutes; assign a person to each group of ideas to read them, organise them and label them for 2 minutes; each person to tell everyone else about their group of ideas for 1 minute.

  5. Return to ‘What’s the problem?’ Check if your original question is correct. Think about how you could refine the question to be as specific as possible. Write your ideas down on sticky notes. You have 1 minute.

  6. Stick your ideas to the wall, discuss and refine the question.

  7. You now have a problem statement for your work

Tips

  • use simple problem analysis activities like root cause analysis using five whys or issues tree to help your team to unpack even more of what they know

  • do not worry about getting all the answers exactly right – the purpose of this exercise is to say what you currently know about the problem

Next steps

Use other chapters to deepen your understanding of the problem:

Further reading

Find out more about this topic by searching the internet for:

Supporting materials

Choose a model to help define the problem by searching the internet for: