What are problems?

We use the word problem to describe a wide range of situations of different importance, from the irritation of discovering that the car battery is flat, to the life threatening failure of an aircraft engine in mid-air.

Reasons for bad decisions

Problems can be defined broadly as situations in which we experience uncertainty or difficulty in achieving what we want to achieve, e.g.:

  • Stopping smoking is a problem when you decide you want to stop but cannot.
  • A computer malfunction is a problem if it prevents you completing work on time.
  • An excessive workload is a problem when it interferes with your ability to work effectively.
  • Poor communication is a problem when it reduces the efficiency of an organisation.

Problems arise when an obstacle prevents us reaching an objective, eg when a breakdown in a company's manufacturing plant (the obstacle) prevents it fulfilling orders (the objective).

Objective = something we have decided we need to achieve.

Obstacle = anything that prevents us achieving an objective. objective + obstacle = PROBLEM

We encounter a large variety of problems during the course of our work, with objectives and obstacles of different types and importance. Defining these accurately is essential to finding an effective solution.

Problems can be divided broadly into two groups:

Those where the current situation is not what was expected (known as closed or maintenance problems)

Those where we want to change our current situation in some way but there is an obstacle preventing us doing so (known as open-ended or achievement problems).

Closed problems occur when something has happened that should not have happened, or something we expected to happen has not happened, ie there is a deviation from the normal or expected state of affairs. For example, it could be the unexpected resignation of a key member of staff, or the failure of the principal speaker to arrive at a conference. The cause (or obstacle) may be known or unknown, but something needs to be done about it.

Problems and the door to solutions

Open-ended problems occur when we want to achieve a specific objective but there are certain obstacles blocking our progress. They can be subdivided into three groups:

  • where we are unable to reach our current objective, eg failing to meet a sales target
  • where our current objective could be exceeded, eg improved efficiency
  • where a., new objective could be achieved through problem solving, eg creating a new product or service.

  Solving a problem involves finding ways to overcome any obstacles and to achieve our objective.

Although each problem is unique in terms of the information involved, and requires a unique blend of thought processes to find a solution, all successful problem solving follows a basic pattern.

Read the next article The stages of problem solving

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Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.
Marie Curie