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Analysing problems

In this article, Associate Professor Colin Higgins outlines the role of research and analysis in the problem-solving process.
Two men in high-vis protective clothing standing near a building site.
© Deakin University
Once a problem has been identified, the next step is to analyse the information at hand. In this article, Colin Higgins outlines the role of research and analysis in the problem-solving process.
After you’ve framed your problem, the next step is to analyse it.
This requires a multi-pronged approach involving breaking down problems into research-style questions and gathering information from the right people to help you move towards an appropriate solution.

Breaking down problems for analysis

Breaking down a problem is important because it helps us to avoid jumping too quickly to solutions that might only address the symptoms and not the causes.
Take a moment to reflect on the scenario we looked at in the previous step (ie our internet has dropped out during an important video call). If we don’t analyse the problem before deciding on the root cause, we could waste a lot of time, money or other resources addressing the wrong things.
For example, what if you immediately thought your modem was the problem? It will take time and money to get another one.
Or what if you thought it has something to do with a network issue within your organisation? It could be a waste of the technician’s time to check all the IT systems if this wasn’t actually the cause.
The problem may be related to your internet service srovider – but this too will take time and effort to address.

Analysing problems to mitigate risks

While this scenario may seem like a simple problem, it’s also easy to see that there’s a lot of scope for wasting time and effort if we haven’t analysed the situation thoroughly.
Likewise, imagine if this turned out to be a larger problem than you thought with wider ramifications leading to customer complaints, high employee turnover, falling sales or market share in a company – how would you feel if you failed to raise this issue?
This is why – no matter how small or large you initially perceive a problem to be – it’s critical to analyse it thoroughly.

Using research to inform your analysis

The effective analysis of problems begins with research.
While this may sound like a difficult and time-consuming process, it’s really just about asking questions and seeking answers until you’ve developed a clearer picture of all the factors related to your problem.
In their ebook, Taylor et al (1994) suggest you can do this by asking:
  • Who is experiencing the problem?
  • What is happening?
  • Why is it happening?
  • Where is it happening?
  • When does is happen?
  • How often/many/much?
Asking these questions will help you to move from the general problem to something more specific. It will also help you to formulate a working definition of the problem – or at least have some specific areas that you can research further.
For example, in our internet scenario, some of the questions you might ask are:
  • Is it only you who is experiencing the problem?
  • Do others working remotely also have the same problem?
  • Did the internet drop out at the office too?
  • And is it dropping out completely, or are you able to access other websites?
  • Does it happen all the time or just on certain calls, at certain times or when other specific people or locations are also connecting?
The answers to these questions will provide you with some prompts for collecting further information.

Other methods for informing your analysis

Talking to people and gathering more facts will help you to assess the problem and move closer to identifying the root cause of the problem (which we’ll look at in the next step).
This can also help identify other problems you might not have thought of yourself.
Here are some tips to help you gather further information to analyse your problem more efficiently:
  • Start with the things you know – this helps you to eliminate some problems and points you in the direction of others.
  • Identify the things you don’t know – what do you need to know in order to get closer to the problem and who can help you with this?
  • Think about the best ways to gather the information you need – are there records of previous or similar issues? Are there people with responsibility for tracking problems? You might need to ask people about whom you need to ask!

Further benefits of effective problem analysis

Learning how to analyse problems not only helps you to identify the cause of problems more effectively and efficiently, but also demonstrates to others that you have the necessary qualities to solve problems when they arise.
When it comes to analysing problems, developing good research skills can also boost your self-confidence and enable you to communicate your ideas more clearly – both of which are qualities highly valued by employers, managers and your peers alike.

Your task

Based on what you’ve learned about analysing problems, how would you go about analysing the internet dropout problem we’ve been looking at?
For example:
  • In addition to the questions posed by Colin, what other questions would you ask?
  • How would you go about researching the problem and who would you involve?
  • How might you apply these strategies to specific problems in your own workplace?
  • What are some other ways could you go about analysing problems?
Use the comments to post your thoughts and use reply to discuss the ideas of other learners.
© Deakin University
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