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The Importance of Problem Definition

By Eric Dean JD, MBA, MA, MA, LPC, CADC

We all have problems — that is life. Problem-solving is not always easy, especially when we are faced with something new. Many of us are quick to identify our problems and then immediately start thinking about solutions. Before we start generating solutions, let us think about how we state or define the problem. How we define the problem will have an impact on how we go about solving it. Here is an example:

In a Chicago high rise apartment building that houses just over 250 tenants, there are two elevators. Wait times for elevators can be as high as 10 minutes. Tenants have been complaining about the wait times and threatened to move out.

What is the problem in the above situation?

The building manager initially defined the problem as there not being enough elevators. In this case, the logical solution would be to build in another elevator. While this would solve the problem, it would be cost-prohibitive. Another definition could be that the elevators do not move fast enough. Again, it may not be possible to speed up the elevators and would certainly be expensive.  

If the problem were framed differently, then there could be alternative solutions. One way would be to say that the residents do not have enough to do while waiting for the elevator, which makes the 10-minute wait time hard to bear. In this case, the solution could involve providing entertainment options to tenants in the lobby so that they are kept busy while waiting for the elevator. The building then made improvements to the lobby by adding artwork, a TV, seating, and updating it regularly with building announcements and coupons to events and businesses in the area. As a result, tenant complaints dropped by 70%!

By looking at the problem from a different angle, the building was able to save a lot of money and reduce tenant complaints. If residents had something to engage with while waiting for the elevator, they would probably think a lot less about how long they were waiting for it. The lesson from this example is to consider alternative definitions of the problem you are facing before thinking about possible solutions. 

For another example, I work with a lot of clients who struggle with procrastination, waiting until the very last minute to complete an assignment for college. Sometimes, it is hard to get things done under a looming deadline and they submit a project late. How would you define the problem in this situation? 

Sometimes they will define this problem as: “I didn’t get started early enough or properly manage my time.” Based on this definition they are taking responsibility for the late submission. Other times I will hear the problem framed as: My professor imposed an unreasonable deadline that did not allow enough time to complete the work. In this situation, they are externalizing the problem to the professor. While both these problem statements may be true, we need to be careful about externalizing our problems because then we will be less inclined to consider how we may have contributed to them. If I feel that my late submission is all the professor’s fault, then I am not going to consider how I could get my assignments in on time moving forward. If I frame the problem in terms of my own inadequate time management, then hopefully I will find ways to improve my time management skills in the future. 

Sharing your problems with a therapist can be a great way to vent, but also an opportunity to get an objective outside perspective on your experiences. Asking for feedback from others is a great way to help you reframe and restate the issues you are facing and be a creative and flexible problem solver. Before you start coming up with solutions, make sure you appropriately define the problem.

If you would like to talk to a professional counselor, contact Symmetry Counseling for therapy in Chicago.

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