Defining Problems to Create Solutions

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

You can't create solutions unless you first understand the problem. In this lesson, we'll talk more about defining problems at work and how to differentiate them from causes and symptoms.

Building a Better Vacuum

Like most of us, James Dyson hated vacuuming. Instead of getting the floors really clean and eliminating dust from the air, Dyson noticed that his existing vacuum cleaner, circa 1970s, was merely pushing the dirt around the room.

The problem, he surmised, was the use of the vacuum bag. What a good vacuum really needed, he determined, was an industrial cyclone that would clean more effectively.

After ''15 years and 5,127 attempts,'' Dyson's bagless creation hit the market and the rest, as they say, is history.

Recognizing a problem with the existing construction of a vacuum cleaner (a bag that filters dirt from the air), Dyson dreamed up a problem-solving creation in alternative. But, the first step was defining the problem to begin with.

In this lesson, we'll talk more about what is - and is not - considered a problem, and how it relates to causes and symptoms.

What's the Problem?

Identifying what is - and what is not - a problem is the first step in developing effective solutions.

Think about it in the context of going to the doctor's office. Your throat is so sore you can barely swallow. The doctor examines your throat and notices that it is red and swollen. He runs tests and determines you have strep throat, and prescribes you an antibiotic to clear up the infection.

So, which of those is the real problem?

Well, the symptoms are the redness and swelling. But, the problem is strep throat. Without understanding that you have strep throat, your doctor cannot adequately treat you to eliminate the problem, right?

The same is true in business, where a problem is a disconnect between where you currently are and where you want to be. That may mean your business is only making ''x'' amount of dollars when you want to be making three times that. Or, it could be a problem with employees who lack the level of skill and training you desire them to have.

Understanding what problems are and where they exist is the first step toward developing effective solutions to correct them. If you recognize that you have a problem with employee training, you can then proceed with strategies to address that deficiency.

Causes and Symptoms

Some people get problems mixed up with 'causes' or 'symptoms.' A cause in business is something that precedes a problem. For example, the cause of your employees' lack of essential training may be ineffective hiring procedures or a lack of adequate training programs.

Symptoms, on the other hand, are the outward manifestation of a problem. Because your employees are lacking in training, a symptom may be poor job performance.

Let's go back to our doctor's office example. Say you head to urgent care with pain in your knee. The pain is a symptom of a bigger problem, such as arthritis or a torn tendon. The cause of that knee pain may be an injury you suffered while playing tennis earlier in the week. A doctor can treat the pain in your knee with painkillers, but that won't correct the underlying problem.

In business, there are lots of potential problems, causes and symptoms. In marketing, for example, you may have declining revenues (the symptom) as a manifestation of not clearly understanding your customers' needs (the problem). The cause could be something like inadequate market research.

Problem Examples

Let's take a look at a few common workplace scenarios and see if we can identify the root problem, its causes and its symptoms.

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