Ready, Fire, Aim! 10 tools to define the problem before your group tries to solve it

We’ve all been there. You’re working with a group to refine a strategy or action plan when you experience a dawning realisation that the real problem is only now surfacing. You realise the group needs to define the problem.

The media is full of policy prescriptions to address a “housing affordability crisis”. “Affordability” is a key theme of elections and national budgets. Yet, there is little agreement on precisely what the problem is, what is causing/contributing to the problem, or the criteria that should be used to assess policy ideas.

To illustrate, just some of the challenges under the umbrella of housing affordability could be:

  • A lack of basic shelter is leaving people either physically homeless or couch-surfing
  • There are a worrying number of people are experiencing relative poverty from low residual income after paying for housing (normally considered paying more than 30% of income on housing costs)
  • A section of the population with sufficient resources to afford rent cannot find appropriate accommodation: there’s an availability problem
  • Cyclical market peaks in house prices are adversely affecting affordability
  • Structural changes based on changed household characteristics (eg increasing single person households) are taking place and resulting in a changed pattern of home ownership
  • Poor wages growth – perhaps related to static labour productivity – is making housing relatively expensive
  • Intergenerational inequity is widening, with transfers from younger buyers to older, asset-rich generations, and/or young people collectively do not have the political clout of their parents and grandparents
  • Demand-side distortions (eg tax exemptions, property taxes, and re-zoning windfalls, buyer subsidies) are fuelling price increases
  • Investment capital is being diverted from productive investments into less productive investments (including sometimes, investment dwellings kept empty)
  • Higher mortgage payments are diverting consumption from other (job-producing) goods and services
  • High loan to property value ratios leave the banking sector vulnerable when household mortgage payments rise
  • Inequity in wealth accumulation (exacerbated by investment tax policies) is worsening
  • Gentrification is changing the character of our inner cities in ways some people do not like
  • Perceptions of value for money of medium density living viz traditional blocks is changing only slowly
  • Families are less socially connected and more spatial separated when young people buy more affordable homes in outer suburbs
  • Labour market flexibility is being reduced as high rents/house prices discourage labour mobility
  • Escalating inner-city property prices encourage urban sprawl and “lock-in” future greenhouse gas consumption
  • House price escalation is promoting greater use of private transport and contributing to congestion that hurts economic growth

The “housing affordability” problem might be some or all of these. It might be none. There is certainly more than one factor contributing to this set of problems and there is unlikely to be a single “silver bullet” solution. But the chances are that most people being asked to vote or pay tax dollars on solutions being offered up in the media by “missed the meeting” when their leaders all agreed on what the problem is, exactly. Widespread support from citizens for possible solutions is almost impossible when people have distinctly different views on the scope and nature of the problem.

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Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.

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In our work with communities on public participation in decision-making, there are often pressures against spending time talking to stakeholders about the nature of the problem to be solved. But taking time to gather perspectives on a complex problem is critical to developing a useful “problem statement” to guide the collective effort. Similarly, in developing social impact management plans or community investment programs, it is critical that all stakeholders have a good understanding of the problem that the plan or program is meant to address.

So how can we work effectively with groups to structure these conversations about the problem? Below are ten techniques that may be used depending on the nature of the problem.

Technique #1 – Herringbone diagram or root-cause analysis

This technique (also known as an Ishikawa Diagram) can help a group separate cause from effect and assist in identifying the root cause(s) of a problem.

The facilitator works with the group to identify the “effect’ or problem. This is represented as the head of the fish (green box).

Ishikawa diagram fishbone diagram herringbone diagram template with green/yellow head and blue/purple boxes for key causes

Herringbone diagram

Next, the group decides how to categorise the broad causes of this effect and scribes them (purple oblong) at the end of ‘bones’ connected to the head. A common method is to use a framework of “Policies, Procedures, Materials, Measurement, People, and Environment” which is useful for thinking about services problems.

Just having these categories are not sufficient to illuminate the real causes of the problem. Brainstorming or presentation of pre-prepared data allows contributing factors to be identified. The facilitator records these as horizontally branching off from the ‘bone’ leading to the broad cause to show it’s a contributing cause. This process can continue to deeper levels of analysis with additional branching.

Alternatives ways to group the broad causes (depending upon the nature of the problem) demonstrate the flexibility of this technique:

  1. 7Ps of services marketing
  • Product – modifications to meet demand/needs/funder policies
  • Pricing – strategies that signal quality or help clients differentiate between services
  • Place – the ways that clients can access your service
  • Promotion – strategies that create desire and commitment to purchase
  • People – strategies to improve employee skills and attitudes
  • Process – systems that are in place to support delivery of the service
  • Physical Evidence – the visual and experiential clues that help clients judge quality
  1. McKinsey 7S organisational framework
  • Strategy – purpose of the business and the way the organisation seeks to enhance its advantages
  • Structure – division of activities and coordination mechanisms
  • Systems – formal procedures for measurement, reward and resource allocation
  • Shared Values – core values that are evidenced in the corporate culture and the general work ethic
  • Skills – organisation’s distinctive capabilities
  • Staff – organisation’s human resources
  • Style – typical behaviour patterns of key groups such as managers and other professionals
  1. PESTLE
  • Political – government change, tax, competition, trade
  • Economic – inflation, interest, wages, business cycle
  • Social – health, education, lifestyle, population
  • Technological – research and development, infrastructure
  • Legal – consumer protection, employment, health and safety
  • Environmental – climate change, pollution, energy policy

A simple, supporting technique (common in HSE investigations) is the “5 Whys”, where the question “Why does that happen?” is repeatedly asked to get at the root cause of the issue.

Technique #2 – Flip the question

This technique defines the problem by what it is not. When we ask, “what is not the problem?” we eliminate distractions and minor associated issues that can be considered later.

The facilitator draws a circle in a frame. By story-telling or asking the group questions such as, “What do you see happening?” and “What are the specific symptoms?” the facilitator can characterise important parts of the problem inside the circle. Problems and symptoms that it is agreed are not part of the core problem (however important in their own right) are recorded outside the circle.

To a limited extent, this technique can accommodate inter-related problems. By introducing a second circle to represent the second problem, a Venn diagram can be formed. This allows characteristics of each problem to be shown separately and common characteristics to be shown in the overlap of the Venn diagram.

Technique #3 – Re-framing

This technique better defines the problem by testing proposed solutions. The tests assess whether the solutions are still appropriate when a part of the assumed problem is changed or reframed. In this way, the group is forced to examine assumptions about the problem.

Early in my career, I was trained by a French advertising industry in its style of creative thinking. The agency saw its enduring differentiator in the competitive creative industries as “disruption” and “creative destruction”. We now hear about digital disruption daily but back then “creative destruction’ was a dusty concept we learnt about in undergrad economics and associated with Joseph Schumpeter. The training was powerful but simple: we learnt to re-frame problems as a way of testing ideas. We had routines that asked, “What would we do if we were trying to make the problem worse?”, “Which animal has a similar problem?”, “If we changed a small part of the problem, how would that change the solution?” and “What if we magnified the problem?”

The reframing of the problem does more than suggest modifications to working solutions, it tests the validity of assumptions about the problem being solved.

The technique is similar to the SCAMPER technique developed by Bob Eberle in the 1970s. For a nifty SCAMPER random question tool, visit https://litemind.com/scamper/

Technique #4 – Gender analysis

This deceptively simple technique looks at the problem via the lenses of different genders.

Key questions are: How will the anticipated results of the program or project affect women, men and other genders differently? How will the different roles and status of women and men affect the work to be undertaken?  Other considerations in further defining the problem are:

  • Differences in women’s and men’s access to assets, resources, and services.
  • Differences and inequities in women’s and men’s use of time between paid, unpaid, and volunteer labour and care-taking responsibilities in the household and community.
  • Differences and inequalities in leadership roles, decision-making, and legal status
  • The capacity of relevant organisations to mainstream gender considerations as the problem-solving strategy is implemented

Ideally, consultation on the nature of the problem with those thought to be affected is the best way to obtain additional gender perspectives on defining the problem, however, in a workshop environment it may be necessary to use proxies or key informants to represent the needs and perspectives of each group.  This is where it may be useful to consult an expert is gender issues.

Technique #5 – Inter-connectivity analysis

This technique visually maps the connections between problems and inter-related causes.

A problem (and its solution) may be part of a greater problem. It often helps to see how problems are connected by using systems thinking. Interconnectivity analysis and town cluster analysis has helped communities appreciate a place as a system (see the complementary work of Dr Mark Fenton and Dr Sheridan Coakes).

The facilitator assists the group to work out how effects and causes are related. The group’s analysis can be recorded using tactile tools (perhaps pins and string linking cards on a wall) or sheets of paper or the facilitator team can project a dynamic representation that evolves in front of the group (mindmup.com).

If the group is getting bogged down in the detail, it can be helpful to take a helicopter view. Looking first at broader problems, and understanding the context and inter-relations with other problems, can help provide a fresh perspective when revisiting the detailed problem.

A helicopter view involves asking questions like:

  • What is this service/activity/effect a part of?
  • What outcome is this contributing towards?
  • What other activities contribute to the same outcome?
  • What activities have a similar output or goal?
  • What problem has a similar need or cause?

A complementary technique uses prompting questions represented by David Smyth’s mnemonic CATWOE:

  • Customers – Who are they, and how does the issue affect them?
  • Actors – Who is involved in the situation? Who will be involved in implementing solutions? And what will impact their success?
  • Transformation Process – What processes or systems are affected by the issue?
  • World View – What is the big picture? And what are the wider impacts of the issue?
  • Owner – Who owns the process or situation you are investigating? And what role will they play in the solution?
  • Environmental Constraints – What are the constraints and limitations that will impact the solution and its success?

By using these six perspectives, the group opens its thinking beyond the issue being presented and the output of brainstorming should be more comprehensive.

We find this mind-mapping technique of root cause analysis useful in our work with complex Indigenous communities, urban systems and when using a collective impact approach to community development challenges.

Technique #6 – Force-field analysis

This technique is associated with Kurt Lewin and change management, but can also help groups better characterise problems.

Lewin’s concept was that an equilibrium exists between two sets of forces: driving forces and restraining forces. The driving forces are pushing the situation towards a new (mostly desired) state but are countered by equal restraining forces resisting that change.  The change management approach is to look for strategies to weaken restraining forces and reinforce driving forces, and therefore move towards a new state.

In terms of a group defining a problem prior to developing and evaluating solutions, force-field analysis is useful in that it promotes discussion of the characteristics of these forces. If we better appreciate what is holding back change and why change might be needed, the problem is redefined.

Four green horizontal arrows (labelled 'driving forces') point right towards a vertical line (a wall?) labelled 'status quo'. Four red arrows on the right pointing left (labelled 'restraining forces') appear to exert force on the other side of the 'wall'. To the right of the red arrows is a second vertical line labelled 'desired state'.

Forcefield analysis

Technique #7 – Interests and values analysis

This technique asks the group to look beyond events or symptoms to examine patterns, structural reasons for these patterns, and the values and worldviews that shape fundamental assumptions about a problem.

This system-thinking model uses four levels of analysis. In looking at problems as events, we ask, “What just happened?” The group can react to the problem but will find it difficult to anticipate when a similar event will occur without looking deeper at patterns and trends. So the facilitator must ask the group, “What’s been going on around here?” or “What trends have there been over time?”

Looking deeper at the connections between issues and interrelated causes, the group’s thinking can be focused on structural factors affecting the observed trends and patterns. The facilitator asks questions such as, “What’s causing these patterns to occur?” This type of thinking allows a service or product to be designed to avoid an undesirable trend or pattern or to be re-design a program to secure greater benefits.

However, transformational change to address a problem (especially complex social problems) is only likely to occur if the facilitator can take the group’s thinking to the level where it can productively discuss the assumptions, beliefs and values that people hold about how the service or product is being created and delivered. The facilitator encourages the group to discover these hidden assumptions by asking questions such as “What is it about our thinking on this problem that continues to allow it to occur?” or “What beliefs keep the system in place?”

The four levels of thinking are often represented by an iceberg (image courtesy https://nwei.org) with only the immediately apparent ‘events’ and ‘react’ levels of thinking above the waterline, and deeper levels of analysis hidden below.

Iceberg illustration with four levels. Level 1 is above the water-line and levels 2-4 are below.

Mental models iceberg

Technique #8 – Review key assumptions

Even simple problems involve a set of assumptions. Developing shared understanding of the assumptions associated with the problem at hand helps to both clarify the problem and align energies behind potential solutions. Where assumptions are recognised as inaccurate, the problem changes and is redefined.

The first step to exposing erroneous assumptions it to make all assumptions explicit by listing them. This is not always as easy as it may sound. In most circumstances, there are “sacred cows”: assumed truths which power dynamics can make difficult to expose without the skills of an experienced facilitator or organisational psychologist.

With assumptions laid bare, they must then be verified. Only the most complex problems will need a professor in critical reasoning to construct a ‘truth machine’ to test the logic of a management program logic or a problem statement: most assumptions can readily be tested for realism. The group is asked:

  • “Under what circumstance would the assumption not hold?”
  • “What proof do you have that the problem exists?”
  • “How long has the problem existed?”
  • “What is the impact of the problem?”
  • “What sequence of events leads to the problem?”
  • “What conditions allow the problem to occur?”
  • “What other problems surround the occurrence of the central problem?”

In our work, for example, assumptions about economic effects of a program or project are a common source of “sacred cow” assumptions. Governments and program/project proponents are reluctant to open up the can of worms that economists understand as opportunity cost. Consequently, it is common to see program and policy settings that are inappropriate to a situation.

Technique #9 – Back-casting

This technique is often used in scenario planning. It asks the group to imagine an ideal future, and then work backwards to identify key progress milestones in a causal chain. Working this way can challenge assumptions about the current problem and clarify whether it is an important problem in the context of possible futures.

The facilitator helps the team develop possible steps on how to reach the future vision from the present, addressing the variety of dimensions (eg political, economic, socio-cultural, technological, ecological, legal, and institutional. Each participant writes one or two key events or critical milestone decisions which are placed somewhere on the timeline.

There may or may not be a single narrative at this stage, but work then begins to identify common themes along the timeline. A discussion is encouraged about exactly where on the timeline an event or decision should occur. Participants choose a small set of near-term and mid-term goals or critical decisions or action triggers based on the ‘future stories’ that have emerged from the process. The final step is to re-examine the initial problem statement and assess its validity.

Technique #10 – Problem statement clarity

This technique is a simple formula to help convert the hard work completed by a group into a meaningful statement of the problem at hand.

(question) + (actor) + (verb) + (object) + (qualifier) = (end result)?

For example:

How can (question) state government (actor) intervene (action) in residential construction industry skills program (object) to improve productivity (qualifier) so that housing if relatively more affordable (end result)?

The aim is to make the problem statement sufficiently exciting to engage people throughout the problem-solving and implementation process. You can regard the problem as “defined” when everybody who reads your problem statement:

  • Understands what the problem is
  • Understands what will be different when the problem is solved
  • Agrees that the statement adequately describes the problem

Technique #0 – Do nothing

Lastly, not really a problem-definition technique, but a fundamental check. The question to ask is, “What would happen if we did nothing?”

The no project/no program option is a core question for (environmental and) social impact assessment. It requires a developed understanding of what would happen without an intervention. In impact assessment, that looks like a baseline that is not a static snapshot of the current situation but rather understands trends and driving forces to casts forward into the future to describe the expected scenario without the proposed program or project.

By forecasting the current situation forward, it may become clear that the problem doesn’t need to be solved, or needs to be solved for a different effect than was being considered. At the very least, by doing this work, the group will have a better idea of the benefits/outcomes of solving the problem, may generate potential solutions along the way, and may also have generated some alternative problems to solve.

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This list is a far from a comprehensive review of group problem definition techniques but they do seem to be the most relevant to working with communities affected by an exogenous change. I hope you find them useful and I look forward to learning about the methods you use to define problems with a group and arrive at a robust problem statement.