There is a well known quote from Albert Einstein about solving problems which goes something like this: If he were given one hour to save the world, Einstein said, he would spend the first 55 minutes defining the problem, the the last five minutes to come up with a solution.
While that ratio may be a little extreme, it does make an important point – the importance of defining a problem adequately before doing anything else. Defining the problem well is actually itself part of finding a solution.
So, how do you go about defining your problem? There are a number of ways you can do this. Here are a few.
1. Looking at the problem in a new or different way.
See if you can rephrase the language of the problem itself. Is there a way of expressing it differently, from a different perspective? One business expert used the following example: A manager presented a problem to his workers – how to increase productivity – and asked for suggestions. All he got was chirping crickets. Then he rephrased the problem – how to make their jobs easier. Then he got plenty of suggestions.
2. Question your assumptions.
Whenever we are confronted with a problem, we make certain assumptions about what we can do to solve the problem, and what we cannot do. Challenge your assumptions. Are they valid? Do you need to adhere to them?
3. Think bigger
Nothing exists in isolation. Everything is connected. A problem is itself a part of a larger framework. If you find yourself getting bogged down in details and minutiae, step back and try to take a larger view of the problem. Instead of looking at the problem from down in the valley among the trees, look at it from the top of the mountain.
4. Break it into smaller parts.
Just as any problem can be looked at as part of something larger, it can also itself be made up of smaller parts. Trying breaking the problem down into smaller, more manageable pieces and solving each of those components.
5. Do your research
Find out as much as you can about the problem, its origins, causes and consequences. Has anyone else faced a similar type of problem and how did he or she solve it? Gather information about the problem to help you find a solution.