June 17

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Defining Problems: a most important skill you should have been taught

Einstein’s quote may sound extreme, but it highlights the importance of defining problems.

By defining a problem well, we make them easier to solve, which means saving time and effort.

Every professional needs to master the ability to define problems or challenges: “What is the specific problem are we trying to solve?” but few education or training programs teach this key skill.

5 whys technique

The ‘5 Whys’ technique is an iterative interrogative process used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. Sakichi Toyoda developed the ‘5 Whys’ technique originally used in the Toyota improvement program.

The aim is to determine the root cause of a problem by repeating the question ‘Why?’ five times. Each answer forms the basis of the next question.

Five iterations are usually needed to resolve the problem. Ask ‘Why?’ as many times as needed until you get to the source or root of the problem (it might be less or more than five).

First principles thinking

Defining problems requires careful thought and analysis, and the best way to solve complex problems is to use ‘first principles’ thinking.

The idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up.

If we don’t take the problem apart, test the assumptions and reconstruct it, we can end up trapped in the way things have always been done.

Socratic questioning

Socratic questioning can be used to establish first principles through careful analysis (named after Socrates the philosopher who lived from c. 470–399 BCE)

This is a disciplined questioning process, used to reveal underlying assumptions and determine the validity of ideas.

Socratic questioning would follow the process:

  1. Clarify the problem and explain the root causes (Why do we think this is the problem?)
  2. Challenge assumptions (How do we know this is true? Is this always the case?)
  3. Look for evidence as a basis to the problem (Why can we say this is the problem? Where is the evidence?)
  4. Consider alternative viewpoints or perspectives (What might be an alternative view? Can we see this another way?)
  5. Examine consequences and implications (What if we are wrong? How does this affect …?)
  6. Question the original problem (Why did we think that? Were we correct?)

Reasoning by first principles is useful when you are dealing with complex problems.

Being able to define problems is a most important skill for professionals.


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