Just What Is Your Problem?

As a consultant I would say that fifty per cent of the time I am asked to solve either a non-existent problem, or the wrong problem.  There is no shame in not being a ‘sophisticated client’.  It is interesting how the meaning of some words change over time due to popular usage.  To be sophisticated is now interpreted as being something of an all-rounder, exhibiting taste and refinement, but of course its root is in practicing the art of sophistry – the power to twist and manipulate with a method of argument that is seemingly plausible though actually invalid and misleading, subtle but unsound or fallacious in its reasoning.  Enter the early-retirement graduate into the consulting business, the former local authority chief executive ready to change the world.  Don’t get me wrong, some of them are good but a lot of them aren’t, trading on once held positional power.

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There is no shame in not being a sophisticated client but there is shame a plenty in a ‘consultant’ who practices the art of sophistry, seeking a parasitic relationship more akin to an umbilical cord.

Problem Definition

I would always encourage a client to sit down with his or her team and scope out the problem, to dry to determine if the ‘problem’ is really a symptom.  This is the most important stage, don’t solve the wrong problem!

The objective of the problem definition is to develop an objective statement of the problem that is clearly understood by all members.  The group may develop a statement of “the desired state” (or an “I wish….”) to be achieved by solving the problem.

I’ll share a few examples of how this might be achieved.


Develop an objective “as is” statement of the problem, that is free of cause and solution.  E.g. ‘32% of order forms processed by our department contain errors’.

The desired state in that example may be “order entry errors reduced by 50%”.   The desired state often helps provide focus, a target and direction.   A quantifiable goal makes evaluation of the solution easier.

Here follows three methods of problem definition:

Method 1 

  1. Start with the presenting problem, a general statement about what is ‘wrong’.
  2. Ask the Problem owner what they have done to solve the problem, provide some background to the problem, what’s been tried, clarify their power to act (don’t try and own someone else’s problem).
  3. Break the problem down into smaller problems – ‘what are the possible reasons for this problem?’.  (Idea:  Can use ‘Cause and Effect’ to identify problem components and Brainstorm the branches or use ‘Force Field’ Analysis).
  4. Review the ideas one by one (grouping and combining where appropriate – idea: use Snowball Technique) – seeking clarification from originators where appropriate.
  5. Select a few ideas that seem to best reflect the problem  (idea: use ‘Weighted Voting’ for gaining consensus for a group-owned problem or ask the Problem Owner).
  6. Can use criteria to choose the problem to look at.  Criteria may include:
  • Control (‘Are we the right people to tackle this?’)
  • Importance (urgency, seriousness)
  • Difficulty (‘Is it possible to do this?’)
  • Time (‘How long will this take?’)
  • Return on Investment (‘What is the pay off?’)
  • Resources (‘Have we got what it takes to do this job?’)

Method 2 – Forwards & Backwards Planning

  1. Start with the presenting problem (Ask the problem Owner).
  2. Write this in the middle of the flipchart
  3. Ask the Problem owner what they have done to solve the problem, provide some background to the problem, what’s been tried, clarify their power to act (don’t try and own someone else’s problem).
  4. Write underneath the presenting problem (‘forwards planning’) – “What new opportunities does this give you”, or, “If you had achieved this then what would you be able to do”).  Repeat twice.
  5. Write above the presenting problem (‘backwards planning’) – “What other problems does that solve”, or “Imagine this was your solution.  What does this solve?”  Repeat twice.
  6. Ask “What stops you from making this happen?”
  7. Ask the problem owner to choose the problem that now best fits their problem.

This method is more effective with one Problem owner – if it is a group owned problem then a representative could be chosen to own the problem and then consensus reached before progressing with the problem, or try Method 1.

Method 3

  1. The problem owner presents the problem and states what they would like to get out of the session.
  2. All participants spend a couple of minutes writing down questions beginning with Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? to ask the Problem Owner about the problem.  The aim is to challenge the Problem Owner’s assumptions and definitions of the problem.
  3. Each participant, in turn, asks the Problem Owner their questions, with supplementary questions as  necessary.
  4. After the Problem Owner has answered the questions each participant spends a few minutes listing “how to’s” that set out what they consider to be the main elements of the problem.
  5. Participants read out their “how to’s”.  The facilitator writes these onto a flip chart.
  6. The Problem Owner selects the one(s) (or rewords the one) they feel represent the main problem(s) that they need to solve.

It is very unusual for a group to easily and clearly state their problems.   Don’t start solving problems before you have a clear understanding of the problem! – Let me know how you get on.

All rights reserved © 2013 Andrew Hutchinson