So, What's the Problem?

by Charles Leon 6 months ago in goals


So, What's the Problem?

We often think we know what the problem or challenge is that we want to find a solution to. However, the reality is that, whilst we may be right, we may also be wrong. There is always a different way to view a challenge. A different perspective can, and often does, lead to a different solution.

The difficulty is finding a structure to “play” with the problem so that it leads to more diverse and wider thinking to lead you into a new way to look at a challenge and generate new thinking.

Defining and understanding the challenge facing you is often the greater part of finding a route to a solution. It can be easy to think you’re at the heart of the problem when you’re actually just dealing with the symptoms. By drilling down into the definition of the challenge, flipping it and viewing it from different viewpoints, more than likely you’ll begin to see the challenge in a new light and begin to generate new ideas.

This article outlines steps and a structure for understanding what it is you want to solve.

There are 6 parts for defining and understanding. These will clarify your challenge/brief/problem and will begin the process of ideation.


When you begin by stating your challenge, it’s essential to identify your purpose for finding a solution. The first difficulty is to battle against impatience, problems often need urgent solutions. Thinking that the first answer you give will be the only or the best answer (selective thinking, see blog 3 thinking errors) is an easy trap to fall into. If you want to generate new and innovative solutions, you must prepare the ground first. Good preparation, understanding and definition of the challenge will enable better, and more open idea generation. By viewing the challenge/problem from many different angles and viewpoints will open up possibilities for better divergent thinking and ideation.

It’s always better to have too many ideas and discard some, than to have too few and be left wanting.

Before everything though, you have to understand what the challenge is;

Identify the challenge.

Use invitational language. These are phrases that invite exploration. Phrases like; how can I? What isn’t working? What do I want to achieve? What might the solution look like? What can be organised? How can I? It would be great if... In this way you open the problem and begin to outline your ideal outcomes and even those types of solutions that may be acceptable.

Determine the positive outcomes of the result of this whole journey. This will set you up for the target and direction of your thinking.

Determine the consequences of the action you want to take. What does an ideal solution look like?

Opinions and Obstacles.

Note down all the obstacles that prevent you achieving you goal.

Make a note of your opinions about the subject, not solutions or answers, but only your opinions and views.

Note down how the challenge/problem makes you feel.

Make a note of the boundaries within which the challenge/solution exists.

Make a note of the limitations. i.e. support, influence, connections and resources.

Begin to gather data around the challenge and current status.

Reframe the Challenge.

Play around with the wording of the challenge/problem, your first approach to the problem is not necessarily the only one.

Flip a negative into a positive, restate the problem with a positive viewpoint as an opportunity.

Alter your focus on the problem and try to find the most beneficial direction. Are there different ways or parts of the problem that can shed light on the problem itself?

Change your starting point.

Reduce complexity and simplify the challenge, whilst the problem remains the same, you are changing how you state the problem. Simplifying helps to stimulate new thinking. It’s possible that you know too much or are too close to the problem.

Use the S.C.A.M.P.E.R. technique. In 1953, Alex Faickney Osborne proposed a method for creative analysis called SCAMPER. This involves taking any problem and following these manipulations;


Are there any elements of the problem that you can be substitute with another that might result in an improvement? Are there different materials or methods to get to the result?


Are there any elements that can be combined with the problem that can help to understand it? Sometimes combining more than one problem can generate several new approaches. i.e. cell phones with integrated cameras.


Can the problem be adapted to another successful use? Netflix started out as a DVD rental service and realized that the future was in online streaming (as opposed to Blockbuster).


How can you modify the problem? Can you gain a better understanding of the problem by magnifying, exaggerating or distorting it? This helps to identify the most significant parts of the problem or challenge.


Can the challenge be put to a completely different use? An example might be using ocean waste to produce shoes.


Is there some waste in the product, process or problem that can be removed?


Reverse the orientation or direction of a process or product. This often helps to see the problem from a different perspective.

Expose your Assumptions.

Ask yourself;

What do we know? What are the facts (that can be verified as demonstrably, provable and true)?

What do we think we know? What do we assume on this subject?

What do we need to know? What research do we need about things we don’t know?

The key here is to begin to note down all assumptions about the subject, what is received wisdom on this subject? What are the rules of thumb? What habits are associated with this? What are the normal short-cuts we use to thinking or action? What types of things do we take for granted or as given?

The 6 questions. 5Ws & 1H

Ask questions. All creative problem solving must start with a question, more often than not it’s; what if? Or why? At this stage though we mustn’t leap ahead.

Ask "What?" What are the facts? What do we actually know? What resources do we need?

Ask "Why?" Like a child, ask why and keep asking why until you get to the very core of the challenge/problem. This is a very powerful (if sometimes annoying) method for drilling down into the heart of the problem. Repeatedly asking why also challenges assumptions.

Ask "Where?" Where is the best place to solve the challenge, where is the best environment to get the best results?

Ask "Who?" Who can help to solve the problem? Who benefits most from the problem being solved? Identify who can be involved in the solution, both directly and indirectly.

Ask "When?" When should the solution be ready? This is also the first element of understanding the scope of the plan that will need to be developed later.

Ask "How?" How did the problem evolve? How does the problem influence people?

Change perspective.

An interesting and enlightening way to explore the challenge is to pretend to be someone else. This is a very powerful way to understand how different viewpoints can affect the definition of the challenge. Designers use this technique intuitively by behaving as if they were the consumer of the design. It’s very similar to method acting, you need to get into the skin of your avatar in order to view the world from their perspective. For instance, you couldn’t design a facility for disabled access if you didn’t imagine what it is like to be in that situation, in the proposed environment. Car and product designers will have a well-defined “target market” in mind and will “act out” how the avatar will use and, most importantly feel about the product or design. The best way to do this is to explore the problem through several different viewpoints.

Using people unrelated to your problem is very useful. Real, fictional or historic characters all work and will stretch your ideas and knowledge about the problem.

Understanding your challenge thoroughly and deeply is a key first step in problem-solving and will reap huge rewards when you come to begin ideation.


  • Identify the real problem – beware of treating symptoms rather than causes. Don’t start with the conclusion.
  • Don’t assume anything.
  • Form opinions
  • Gather facts
  • Set boundaries
  • Agree objectives
  • Restate the challenge in multiple ways
  • Don’t look for consensus
  • Don’t favour any one option over another
  • Don’t be impatient with this stage.
  • Don’t react quickly – react strategically.

Charles Leon
Charles Leon
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Charles Leon
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