What is THE problem? LO26870

From: Fred Nickols (nickols@att.net)
Date: 06/23/01

Responding to AM de Lange in LO26794 (and several others since) --

When At first posed the question in the subject line, I responded to him
directly because I had occasion to communicate with him regarding another
matter. I've been following this thread since and have decided to toss in
some comments...

First off, there ain't no such thing as "THE" problem in the sense of a
problem having an existence apart from a person. There is especially no
such thing as the "real" problem or the "wrong" problem (as in common
criticisms that someone treated symptoms instead of the "real" problem or
that someone solved the wrong problem). There are only perceived
problems. The definition of any problem is shaped by the values, goals,
biases and other factors that mark the person who is setting out to solve
THE problem. I look at a situation and see one or more problems; someone
else looks at it and sees a different set of problems, perhaps with some
overlap, perhaps not; and a third person looks at the same situation and
sees no problem at all.

What is of interest is THE problem that this or that person sets out to
solve. That problem is shaped by the way the person setting out to solve
it defines it. To define a problem isn't simply to articulate it; that's
only part of the matter. To define a problem is also to locate or situate
it and to explicate it. There's more than that, too, but this is already
looking like a long post.

Some say that a problem consists of a gap, a discrepancy between "what is"
and "what should be." I think that's part of it but not enough all by
itself. Any such gap must also trigger tension in the form of
dissatisfaction on the one hand and determination to do something about it
on the other. Discrepancy, dissatisfaction and determination must all be
present or there will be no attempt to solve the problem and the attempt
to solve a problem is the best evidence I know of regarding the existence
of a problem (whatever it might be and however it might be defined).

So, I define a problem as a situation requiring action. No action
required, no problem. Just as important, the measure of having solved a
problem is that no further action is required. In short, to solve a
problem is to reduce or eliminate the requirement for action.

Now, to solve a problem, one must act. More specifically, one must act
with purpose and outcome in mind. In other words, one must intervene.
Here, things get interesting.

Many people believe that to solve a problem, one must find and eliminate
or correct the "causes" of the problem. I think that is a situationally
useful approach and absolutely wrongheaded in most situations. To seek
out the "causes" is most appropriate when you are dealing with the kind of
situation for which the Kepner-Tregoe approach is so well suited, namely,
when things were going along just fine and then, Wham!, something happens
and things go to hell in a hand basket. This well-known approach is
really just a gussied up version of the technical troubleshooting or fault
isolation approach (which I applied for years as a technician in the
Navy). But it is ill-suited for other situations and wrongly applying it
can lead you nowhere or, worse, off a cliff. (There are basically five
ways in which "gaps" or discrepancies can come about and only one of them
ties to sudden, unexpected changes of the kind tackled by the
Kepner-Tregoe approach.)

So, let's go back to what is required to solve a problem, a course of
action that, once implemented, reduces or eliminates the requirement to
act. Typically, this course of action (a.k.a. a solution) does reduce any
discrepancy and thus any associated dissatisfaction and, eventually,
determination to act. To intervene, as noted, is to act; more
specifically, it is to change something. The something to be changed in
the course of solving a problem (at least the kinds of problems I
encounter in the workplace) is some aspect of the structure of the
situation in which the problem may be said to be embedded. That's right,
we go in and change the structure of the situation.

It also happens that change is usually indirect, that is, we don't change
"it" (whatever we're out to change), we change something else and "it"
changes as a result. We don't "increase sales" directly, for example.
We make more calls, we shift our closing technique, we boost advertising
and so on. Thus, in the structure of any situation in which we are
attempting to solve a problem, we are interested in two points: Points of
Evaluation and Points of Intervention. The Points of Evaluation are those
places where we will check to see if we have in fact solved the problem.
The Points of Intervention are those places where we can change things
directly with the methods and means at our disposal. The problem gets
solved, so to speak, as a consequence of changes "rippling through" the
structure of the situation from the Points of Intervention and making
themselves felt at the Points of Evaluation. It is in the way that
solutions to problems are "engineered" (i.e., brought about through
artful, skillful contrivance).

In order to "engineer" a solution to a problem, you must be able to trace
the linkages between your Points of Intervention and your Points of
Evaluation. You have to show HOW your actions will produce the desired

Generally speaking, then, you are better off to forget about causes and
focus on solutions. A solution is a course of action that produces some
desired result (and whether that is restoring the status quo ante is

I could go on and on and on but I won't. There are several articles on my
web site that elaborate on the points above in much greater detail (and
shed light on other aspects of problem solving as well). The more salient
ones are as follows:

Choosing the Right Problem Solving Approach .pdf
Forget About Causes, Focus on Solutions! .pdf
Reengineering the Problem Solving Process .pdf
Solution Engineering: Basic Terms, Key Concepts and the Process .pdf
Solution Engineering in Action: A Really Good Example .pdf
Ten Tips for Beefing Up Your Problem Solving Tool Box .pdf
Three Cases in Figuring Out What to Do .pdf
What is Your Intervention Logic? -- The Links to the Bottom Line .pdf

All can be read on the web or downloaded in .pdf format.

Sorry if I'm coming across as pedantic but I regularly witness so much
wasted energy in wrongheaded attempts to solve problems that I sometimes
have a "hair trigger" on this subject.

Regards to all...

Fred Nickols
The Distance Consulting Company
"Assistance at A Distance"
(609) 490-0095


Fred Nickols <nickols@att.net>

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