Solve Problems By Defining Them Better

Can problems exist in isolation?

Probably not.  Every problem appears with hints about its solution.

Problems exist in isolation when people do not think about them properly.  It is a known fact that a well-defined problem is nearly solved.  Perhaps the question of defining problems more clearly is the pervasive problem.  It is not so hard as people seem to think.

After a little study, sometimes people find that they already know how to solve the problem.  A problem you know how to solve is not a problem at all.

For the rest, a few simple steps will lead to a set of candidate solutions.

Step 1.  Identify clearly where you are now.  Describe how this position is not the position that you want.  List the aspects that are undesirable.  List the resources and skills that you expect to carry forward to the new and better state.

Step 2.  Specify what the new and better state will look like.  Sometimes this is as easy as defining what you mean by better.  List the preferred aspects of the new position. Be sure to include all the variables.  For example, having more money makes little sense until you know the tradeoffs necessary to get it.

Step 3.  Notice how the desired future and undesirable present are connected. These connections, or their absence, are the hints at the solution.

Step 4.  Recognize that the problem is neither the present nor the future state.  The problem is the space between.  What are you going to do to create the change?  What resources do you have? Which do you need?  What side effects are there from any potential solution. For example getting money by working two jobs may just make other problems appear. Ask “what then” after each possible choice.

Step 5 Identify and decide how you will acquire the missing parts. Are there other ways to approach that have not been explored?  What have others done in this circumstance? Is stop doing something a choice? Addition by subtraction.

Step 6.  Are there ready-made solutions that require only money to implement?  If there are then your problem is merely getting the money together. Perhaps that is the problem and not the one where you started. Sometimes problems are impossible to solve because people do not notice what the real problem is.  A large part of problem definition is deciding that you are working on the right question.

Step 7.  Create candidate solutions and implement them.  Review success or failure and continue or revise.

Defining the problem correctly is frequently harder than solving the problem.  Practice.


Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is now with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

6 Comments on “Solve Problems By Defining Them Better

  1. Don has succinctly written how to ask questions and reflect about making the changes in the in between space; how to think. I totally align with his questioning and also I know that an important component of making that gap more spacious instead of heavy or defeating is to ask “Afformation questions” (Noah St. John) because then you create more mindful energetic space — you can reflect differently on the very resources that you have as well as reflect with a more uplifted energy. e.g. “Why is it that the resources I require are coming to me easily?” “Why is it that I am a great problem solver?” or “How is that I can identify what appears to be the problem in a way in which it dissolves and I move forward through a new door, gaining new abilities to solve different problems at a whole new level?” Thank you Don for your clarity — it helps with the gap or where many of us get vague. Having your map will help many. Jo Ann

  2. I also appreciate “right questions” and “open questions” as well as Afformation questions. Right question are a form of “open-ended, not yes or no answers, but also the questioner asks the question from a constructive or positive or solution-focused place. Most people can think with affirmations, but questions that have the positive-orientation — after “Why is it that” or “How is it that” are game changers. Milton Erickson, the great hypnotherapist, who influenced most hypnotherapist in the last 60 years, and who left a great legacy, was very aware of the power of words and perception and how to really work in the space between where creative consciousness is birthed. Neurolinguistic Programming, a forerunner of how we can choose our words to help our subconscious mind, has many lessons around embedded commands “As I walk this morning, I become more and more happier”. Within the sentence is an “embedded suggestion to our subconscious” to become happier. Both of these influencers and Noah St. John’s work suggest ways to work creatively in the space between. I have been interested in this for many years, both as a communicator and therapist. I am so appreciating your writing Don — thank you. Jo Ann

  3. Thank you Jo Ann. We come from quite different places but it seems that problems and their solutions are a universal structure. Interesting. Perhaps you could expand a little on your affirming questions. I have been of the opinion that why as a question to clarify a future choice is a valid question but why to validate past behaviour is not. “How did it come to be that ….” is my preferred form there. “Why did you not do your homework” usually produces a lie or a deflection. Parents and teachers ask a lot of why questions that will never be answered and as adults we immediately defend ourselves from that kind of question. Little useful comes from that. I think people are intuitive problem solvers but become confused when offered a tactic before the problem/opportunity is well defined. Like your bank pushing an RRSP without knowing the person’s strategic context. Must think a little more about this. Thanks again for your input.

  4. Hi Don, Thank you. The questions are “Afformations” and they are different than affirmations or from asking “Why did you not do your homework”. For more on Afformations you might look up coach Noah St. John. I will expand more later. Thank you for the dialogue. Jo Ann

  5. @Don Is there any way to take off my double posting today — I edited it — but did not realize there is no edit once posted. That was a missing part of my experience on this setting — and has now got me wondering can we edit it once we post, or can you delete my first attempt at English. Also, today, I did a recorded presentation on Google Hangout for my free telesummit The Money Flow Formula 2015. Part of my own presentation was about questions to assist Money Flow from the perspective of purpose, passion, profit and philanthropy. My friend, Laurie Szott Rogers interviewed me and we touched on the importance of asking questions for expansion of possibilities versus what we often are expected to do when we are pin pointing answers. We often do this for correct results — learned over and over again in school — what is the answer? Don, I have noticed that you discuss points of focus like clarifying what you consider to be the problem — and that is very important in many situations. Finding the solutions has a better likelihood if we are knowing what we are looking for, i.e. we have clarified the problem. Step 5 — finding the missing parts — really intrigues me as it does enter into not just looking at the missing puzzle pieces, it suggests that in the process of finding the missing parts, new information could arise — more creativity and awareness. Thanks again for your post. It is excellent as it stands and I yet like most discussions, we might be looking in between the steps for missing parts or other possibilities.

  6. It is now invisible. I took a quick look at afformative questions. Quite interesting. I found with coaching children that negative instruction failed. Throw strikes worked. Don’t walk this guy did not. A long time ago I did an article called Be Positive. There are still some B+ signs around the office. In my way of thinking you cannot cause your brain to process “Lose weight” because it is negative. In theory gain thin would. No evidence to support that however. There is an interesting link in this article that addresses problem definition in a more formal way.
    Thanks for your contribution. Best

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