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This content is taken from the University of Leeds & Institute of Coding's online course, Decision Making: How to Choose the Right Problem to Solve. Join the course to learn more.

Defining the problem

Now you’ve identified and analysed a problem’s causes, you’re going to work on defining the problem itself.

Writing a concise, unambiguous problem statement can help you communicate the nature of the problem to other people and focus your collective efforts to find a solution. There is further guidance on writing problem statements in the See Also section.

A good problem statement frames the problem without suggesting solutions, and includes:

  • Vision - What does it look like if we solve this problem?
  • Reality - What is actually happening now, to who, when, where and why?
  • Consequences - What will happen if we don’t solve this problem?
  • Method - How might we approach this problem?

For example:

We want an arts centre building that is pleasant and safe to work in for everybody.

Currently, the roof is leaking because it has not been regularly maintained. Staff are being exposed to mould and damp, property has been damaged and the problem gets worse every time it rains. We cannot afford regular maintenance.

If we do not repair the roof, and pay for regular maintenance, the fabric of the building will become unsafe, and water may get into the electrical system creating a health and safety hazard. Repairs will become more expensive as more water damage occurs over time.

How might we fix the leak and pay for regular repairs?

Finishing on a ‘how might we?’ question provides a prompt for starting to think about possible solutions.

Another format for problem statements focuses on a real person’s needs:

As a… wheelchair user I want to… get to the meeting rooms on the mezzanine area without having to get assistance from staff, friends or family so that I can attend events, maintain my independence, and feel welcome in an inclusive arts centre. How might we provide an accessible route to the mezzanine area before June next year to keep the trust of our patrons with accessibility needs?

Share your thoughts:

In the Comments section share your thoughts on what you have covered so far:

  • Have the last couple of steps changed how you approach problems?
  • How might you approach a problem differently now?
  • Can you give an example?

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This article is from the free online course:

Decision Making: How to Choose the Right Problem to Solve

University of Leeds