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.