The Problem Identification Process

By Mary Angela Kenney, Principal, Collaborative Solutions, LLC

Problem Identification – A Process

Have you ever deployed your best team to resolve a problem and have the team execute flawlessly, only to find that the problem that was solved did not address the customer’s real need? This common scenario is often the source of widespread customer dissatisfaction and is all too prevalent in today’s nonprofit business environment where valuable resources are needlessly and inadvertently wasted because problems are not accurately identified.

Given the fast pace of change in today’s market and the high volume of information that inundate leaders on a daily basis, it is essential to have an approach for identifying key organizational issues. Problems often arise at the senior leadership level and those leaders need to suppress their natural inclination to immediately solve the problem. The tendency to react (Ready, fire, aim) often leads to less creative solutions that may not meet the real need. It is critical that a structured, deliberate approach be taken to solve complex problems in order to arrive at a solution that will allow effective collaboration among all the key knowledge experts, so that they can generate useful ideas and achieve the desired result.

A Structured Approach to Problem Solving: Creative Problem Solving Buffalo™

Accurately framing the problem is the most important step of the Creative Problem Solving –Buffalo (“CPSB”) process. It is imperative to understand the problem and what makes the CPSB process effective is that it provides a structure, language, and tools for targeting opportunities. The problem identification framework under the CPSB model begins with the ‘Task Appraisal Process.”  The Task Appraisal Process has four elements:

  • People – Are the right people working on the tasks; do they have the authority and responsibility to take action; what level of sponsorship is being provided; do the people have the necessary knowledge and skill to address the problem?
  • Outcomes – Is there a clear understanding of the desired outcome; is a current process being improved or are a new process being created; what are the most and least important aspects of the problem; how is the outcome that is desired different from what exits currently?
  • Context – What has been tried before to address this issue; does it link to the strategic priorities; are there the necessary resources (time, money, people, etc)?
  • Method – How familiar are the people with the problem solving tools/methods that will be used?

The Task Appraisal Process can be applied in a wide range of scenarios. Here are a few examples:

  • Interviewing clients to evaluate and determine which problems to address and more effectively position services.
  • Leading a group of cross functional leaders to develop a consensus on the important issue to solve and streamline the engagement.
  • Improving or repairing relationships with a previous client or organization.

Identifying the Problem

To lead customers in the problem solving process, it is important to determine the customer’s level of understanding of their problem.  The selection of appropriate tools and techniques to facilitate the process will depend on the specificity of the issue.

  • Are they broad challenges or opportunities? (e.g. “My grant process takes too long.”)
  • Do they need to close the gap between current and future state?(e.g. “How can we better understand the grant approval process?”)
  • Do they understand their current state?  (e.g. “Can we articulate the current cycle time, how much does it cost today? Do we have the data to support our current assumptions?”)

Tools and Techniques

Structuring and framing the issues at the front end of the process is critical to successfully implementing the process. This approach provides users with a variety of tools ranging from idea generation to action planning and these tools used in conjunction with the process guidelines allow the user to achieve the desired result. The power is in the execution and the tools for executing the process are categorized into three areas:

  • Generating ideas – Incremental change or step change will determine the appropriate and most productive use of the nine available tools.

  • Focusing – There are eight tools that can compress a large quantity of options or others that are suited for in-depth analysis and development.

  • Facilitation –  It is a leadership role. They need to know how to use a range of creativity methods, tools, and techniques as well as manage group dynamics and move the group toward the desired outcome. The highly skilled facilitator will understand, plan, and manage the process to reach the desired outcome.

A structured approach along with the proper tools and techniques can result in solving numerous issues that organizations face on a daily basis. It may take a little more time on the front end to identify the correct problem, but the ideas and solutions generated by the team will meet the needs and desires of your customers.

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