Problem solving

by Rus Slater and Hans Vaagenes

Defining the problem

If we can really understand the problem, then the answer will come out of it, because the answer is not separate from the problem.

Jiddu Krishnamurti

What is the actual problem and what isn’t?

It may seem to be odd to ask what is and isn’t the problem, but it is a sensible way of setting the parameters of the task. Consider the famous line from the original ‘Italian Job’ film:

You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!

(You can watch the clip on YouTube)

The problem was ‘how to remove the doors from the van’; the existence of the van as an entity wasn’t the problem.

So it makes sense to start our process by looking at what is and what isn’t the problem. One diagrammatical way to do this is to use the grid below.

Problem definition grid

The problem in the centre should be narrowed down in as detailed a fashion as possible; so to consider the problem in the ‘Italian Job’, which was

  • How to remove the doors from the van, quickly, without collateral damage to the team or the contents of the van, thus allowing the team to rapidly remove the gold from the van.

The problem was not

  • How to remove the van from existence
  • How to open the doors without damage to the van
  • How to open the doors of the van in a workshop or special environment
  • How to remove the gold from the bank vault before it was loaded into the van
  • How to get the security guards to open the doors, thus allowing the gold to be removed without damaging the doors.

Had the team been unable to solve this problem, then they might have had to fall back onto the things the problem was not in order to find a solvable problem.

It is particularly useful to formally define what the problem is before you start to try, even subliminally, to solve your problem. To look at a real life problem in terms of what it is, and what it isn’t, we can consider the situation that occurred in 1928 during Umberto Nobile’s ill-fated attempt to reach the North Pole by airship.


The airship had crashed and the survivors could see that they could not live for long on the ice floe. Their radio was damaged, so they informally leapt to the conclusion that the problem was how to get back to civilisation on their own.

As they were trapped on an ice floe, this seemed insoluble.

One of the survivors had a different definition of the problem: the problem is how to get the radio working without access to proper radio spare parts, so we can summon outside help.

He asked what a resistor was made of.

‘Graphite’ said the radio operator.

The questioner drew a thick line in pencil on a piece of paper and suggested the operator try it in the circuit in place of the resistor. It worked and help was summoned from outside. Problem solved.

Environmental stability

How stable are the environmental factors in which this problem appears and what is the context of the problem?


Any problem sits within the sphere of influence of a variety of ‘factors’. The specific situation will dictate what the factors are and how much they may change or remain constant. For example, an army officer carrying out an appreciation of a tactical military problem may take into account factors such as the enemy, the aerial superiority situation, relative capability, ground, time, space to manoeuvre, tasks, logistics and security. In a commercial situation, a manager may use the model known by such acronyms as PESTLE.


The problem will also sit within a ‘context’; a simple stand-alone problem that I solve and that only affects me is the simplest, at one end of the scale. A complex problem may require the input of many people or organisations or may affect many people or organisations.

For example, a Sudoku puzzle does not change during the period you do it; it is self-contained, and no one else is affected by your discovery of the right solution or your failure to solve it. So you know there is a single, pre-determined solution and that you can pick it up and put it down when you want, as it is not going to change due to external disturbances. This would fall into the ‘Straightforward’ quadrant

On the other hand, if you are trying to dock a boat, the context may change within a matter of seconds (wave/swell/wind) and/or hours (tide/visibility). So if you were sailing solo in a small boat, this would fall into the ‘Volatile’ quadrant.

In the same example, but with a larger boat, you may also be reliant upon an on-board crew and a dockside crew. If the water and weather conditions are good, then the problem falls into the ‘Complex’ quadrant.

Continuing with this nautical theme, if the weather is squally, it is dark and the sea is rough, this would fall into the ‘Confusion’ quadrant. If the skipper is incompetent or cannot communicate effectively with the crew or dockside team, then we slip from ‘Confusion’ to ‘Chaos’!

Applied problem solving

Where the elements in a situation are highly interconnected, but the environment is relatively stable, then you are in the complex area. Many large projects fall into this category, and sophisticated problem-solving systems, such as the PRINCE2 project management method, have been developed to manage them.

Q: But why do so many projects still fail to fully deliver?
A: Usually, because the factors change faster than the project can change and develop to keep up. These factors can take the form of different stakeholder demands, technology changes, political changes or changing customer demands. The key principle when dealing with a complex problem of this nature is to recognise that there is no optimal solution! But people keep trying to ‘solve’ such problems as if there is an optimal solution, often compounding the issues as a result.

Solve the cause or just the problem?

What is the root cause, the effect of which is this problem? Do we want to solve just this problem or do we need to ‘solve’ the cause?

It may be that you have a problem that you are trying to solve and you can see that this problem has occurred before. For instance, you are driving to work and your car suddenly coughs a couple of times and dies. It won’t restart and you can tell that it is out of fuel. This happened last month and twice last year. Every time the fuel gauge read half full.

Now you are faced with a choice:

  1. Do you simply fix today’s problem – walk to a fuel station, fill a can and walk back and fill your car
  2. Or do you do the above and then fix the faulty fuel gauge to prevent this problem happening again?

In reality, we usually fix the problem now, and decide to look into fixing the root cause of the problem at a later date, at our leisure.


In the above instance, we have identified the root cause of the problem – a faulty fuel gauge – but in the real world you may find that the root cause of the problem is neither so straightforward nor so easy to diagnose.

At this stage, you may well need to do some cause-and-effect analysis. There are two tools that are particularly useful here: Ishikawa Cause-and-Effect Analysis and 5Y.