Recognizing a Problem Study Guide (page 2)
We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.
John W. Gardner, American politician, former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (1912–2002)
If you want to begin to think critically so you can solve problems, you first have to recognize that there is a problem and decide its importance or severity. This lesson focuses on how to do just that!
We all face problems every day. Some are simple, like running low on gas in your car, and take a short period of time to solve. Others are complex and demand more time and thought. For example, someone's boss might ask him or her to figure out why the company's latest sales pitch to the most important client failed, and come up with a new one.
Once you know you have a problem, you need to prioritize—does the problem demand immediate attention, or can it wait until you are finished working on something else? If there's more than one problem, you need to rank them in order of importance, tackling the most important first.
What is a Problem?
A problem is defined as a question or situation that calls for a solution. That means when you are faced with a problem, you must take action and make decisions that can lead you to a resolution.
Problems that occur in the form of questions typically don't have one easy answer. Imagine you're asked, "Why are you voting for candidate X instead of candidate Y?" or "Why do you deserve a raise more than Tannie does?" You know the answer, but it's not always easy to put it into just a few words.
Situational problems require thinking analytically and making decisions about the best course of action. For example, Raquel learns that a coworker has been exaggerating the profits of the company for which she works—and he is doing it on orders from the company president. Should Raquel blow the whistle, jeopardizing her career? If so, to whom?
Road Block to Recognizing a Problem
One of the most common reasons for not recognizing a problem is a desire to avoid taking action or responsibility. People think that by not acknowledging the problem, they have no responsibility for solving it. This kind of thinking can cause someone to "not notice" there are only five checks left in his or her checkbook—if acknowledged, he or she would need to order more checks. Or, a worker looks the other way as faulty items come off a conveyor belt and are packed for distribution—if noticed, this should be reported to management. Then the worker might be asked to find out what went wrong.
If people don't acknowledge a problem, it could become larger and more complex, or more problems might be created. For example, if the person in the first situation doesn't notice a need for more checks and order them, he or she will run out of checks. Then, the person not only will be without checks when they're needed, but will have to go to the bank for temporary ones. And if a worker fails to report the faulty products, there could be lawsuits that might cause the company to cut staff, including the worker who first saw (but failed to recognize) the problem. Always remember, failing to recognize a problem usually creates more work—and more problems.
A wise man, Theodore Roosevelt, once said, "In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."
But Is It Really? Determining the Existence of a Problem
Some situations look like problems when, in fact, they're not. How can you tell? Ask yourself, "Is this just part of a process or does it actually call for a solution?" It's important to recognize when problem-solving skills are needed, and when they aren't. Here's an example:
George has spent two weeks training a new employee at the bank where he works. The new employee makes a couple of errors during her first day out of training. Should George ask his boss if he can spend more time with her? Or, should he find out what expectations the boss has for new employees? George discovers that the boss expects a few errors during a teller's first week on the job. So what George thought was a problem wasn't really a problem at all.
Types of Problems
Once you recognize that a problem exists, but before you begin to solve it, you have to determine the type of problem as it relates to a timeframe and your personal priorities. There are two criteria to use: severity and importance.
Severe problems may be identified by the following characteristics:
- require immediate solutions
- may call for the involvement of others who have more expertise than you
- result in increasingly drastic consequences the longer they remain unsolved
For example, a break in your house's plumbing is a severe problem. Water will continue to leak, or perhaps gush out, until the break is fixed. The water can damage everything it comes in contact with, including hardwood floors, carpeting, furniture, and walls. Unless you are a plumber, you will need to call a professional to solve the problem immediately. Delays can result in a more difficult plumbing issue and also costly water damage repairs. You might even need to replace flooring or other items if the break is not fixed quickly.
Some minor problems can become severe if not solved immediately. For example, a campfire in the woods that is difficult to put out may take a great deal of time and effort to extinguish. But if it is not put out, it could start a major forest fire (severe problem).
Think of a problem as an opportunity to learn something and build your self-confidence. Every time you solve a problem, it gives you the confidence to face the next one.
Problems are considered important or unimportant in relation to one another, and according to personal priorities. That means you have to rank problems in terms of what's most important to you. By prioritizing, you don't deal with minor issues first, leaving more important ones until the last minute.
The Cost of Problem Solving
When you are on a budget, money is a factor in determining the importance of problems. If two or more problems require a payment to solve and you do not have the money available to take care of everything at once, you will need to determine what needs attention first and what can wait.
When you recognize that you are faced with a problem, you also recognize the need for action on your part. But that action depends on the kind of problem you are facing. Is the problem severe? If there is more than one problem, which should be tackled first? Use your critical thinking skills to pinpoint any problem before you begin to anticipate a solution.
Skill Building Until Next Time
- The next time you need to make a To Do list, try ranking the items on your list. You might list them in order of what takes the most or least time. Or perhaps list them in order of when they have to be done. You might have your own order of importance in which to list items. For practice, try ordering them in each of the different methods previously listed.
- Test your skill of problem recognition when watching the evening news. After you hear a story, list three problems that will probably occur as a result.
Exercises for this concept can be found at Recognizing a Problem Practice Exercises.
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