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Defining a Problem Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 19, 2011

Lesson Summary

The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.

Albert Einstein, German-American scientist, Nobel Prize winner (1879–1955)

How do you know if something is a real problem or just looks like one? In this lesson, you'll find out how to tell the difference between those that are genuine and those that aren't. You'll also discover some common reasons people miss the real problems before them.

No matter what the problem, the only way to come up with an effective solution is to identify the actual problem that needs to be solved before you do anything else. If you don't, you could end up spending your time treating the symptom or consequence of your problem while the real problem remains waiting to be dealt with.

Have you ever spent time looking for a solution to something, only to discover that the real problem is still there, as big as ever? Here's an example. Pete worked for hours pulling up what he thought were weeds in his garden, only to discover a few days later that the very same stuff was growing back. What Pete failed to notice was that sunflower seeds from his birdfeeder spilled into the garden every time a bird landed there. Unless Pete moves the birdfeeder, or changes the kind of seeds he puts into the feeder, he'll continue to have a problem with sprouting sunflowers in his garden. The "weeds" were merely a consequence of the problem—the location and contents of Pete's birdfeeder.

Pete's problem represents a common error in problem solving. People often mistake a more obvious consequence of a problem for the actual problem. This can happen for different reasons. People may be busy, so whatever irritates them the most gets the most attention, or they may make assumptions about the nature of the problem and take action without determining if the assumptions are valid.

When someone "solves" a situation that's not an actual problem, there are two common results:

  1. The "solution" is unsatisfactory because it fails to address the real problem.
  2. Further decisions are needed to solve the real problem.

What Is the Real Problem?

Many times, it can be tricky to figure out exactly what the real problem is. Here's an example: Marta's teacher, Mr. Girard, returns her essay with a poor grade and tells her to rewrite it. With no other feedback, Marta doesn't know what's wrong with the essay, so how can she correct it effectively? In this case, it will take some work for Marta to define the problem. First, she needs to reread the essay carefully to see if she can figure out what's wrong with it. If the essay's problems are still not apparent to her, she needs to go to Mr. Girard and ask him to be more specific. Then, when he tells her exactly what's wrong with her work, she can redo it to meet his standards.

At other times, a problem may seem overwhelming in its size and complexity. People may avoid dealing with it because they think it will take too much time or energy to deal with such a large issue. However, a closer look might reveal that there may be only one real problem of manageable size, and a number of offshoots of that problem which will resolve themselves once you deal with the actual problem.

How do you go about defining the real problem? There are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Get the information you need, even if you have to ask for it.
  • Do not be tricked into solving offshoots, or other consequences, of your problem instead of the problem itself.
  • Do not be overwhelmed when you are faced with what looks like, or what you have been told is, a giant problem.
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