How to clarify a problem

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Have you sometimes tried to tackle a complex problem without being clear about what you’re doing? Unless you’re clear, you might even waste time on trying to fix the wrong problem, or you might tackle some apparent issue that is not a problem at all.

If you’re embarking on some massive project such as a doctoral thesis, it’s essential that you spend time at the start, making sure you know exactly what you’re trying to resolve. You’ll usually be required to make a ‘Statement of the problem’.

This initial clarification is one of the most critical steps in problem solving. It implies seeking to make the problem clear at the outset so that you know exactly what has to be resolved. You can then plan confidently how to resolve it. You won’t get far if you miss this important first stage.

The individual problem-solver will routinely seek to locate any gaps, disjunctions, incongruities, confusions, inconsistencies and irregularities in data that shows the nature of the problem. The early identification of a problem enables the thinker to assemble resources necessary to the further systematic elaboration of thinking. So, an ability to identify and define problems provides a focus for selecting and structuring the mental operations and processes that follow.

  1. Gain an understanding of the context and issues surrounding the problem.
  2. Get to the core issues and seek data relevant to them.
  3. Locate any gaps, disjunctions, incongruities, confusions, inconsistencies and irregularities in data that show the nature of the problem.
  4. Perhaps start with obvious incongruities when seeking information, but also seek obscure hints and clues where these present themselves as relevant.
  5. Describe the problem accurately, clearly and briefly. Determine the purpose and objectives that will help to guide the coming problem solving process.
  6. Clarify whether you should transform the objectives into criteria (questions) with which to evaluate any outcomes from the problem solving that is likely to follow.
  7. Once you have stated the correct problem clearly, get on with solving it. This means devising tentative solutions (hypotheses) you might try out, test or put into operation to see if they work. But don’t put this phase into operation until you know precisely what the problem is.

Perhaps practice by clarifying a typical problem relating to your health, clothing, home, personal security, family, social life, achievements, aspirations, occupation, vocation or profession.

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