Identifying and Structuring Problems

This page covers the first two stages in the problem solving process: Identifying the Problem and Structuring the Problem.

Stage One: Identifying the Problem

Before being able to confront a problem its existence needs to be identified. This might seem an obvious statement but, quite often, problems will have an impact for some time before they are recognised or brought to the attention of someone who can do anything about them.

Once a problem has been identified, its exact nature needs to be determined: what are the goal and barrier components of the problem?  Some of the main elements of the problem can be outlined, and a first attempt at defining the problem should be made.  This definition should be clear enough for you to be able to easily explain the nature of the problem to others.

GOAL (I want to…)

BARRIER (but…)

Tell a friend that we find something they do irritating.

I don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Buy a new computer.

I’m not sure which model to get or how much money is reasonable to spend.

Set up a new business.

I don’t know where to start.

Looking at the problem in terms of goals and barriers can offer an effective way of defining many problems and splitting bigger problems into more manageable sub-problems.

Sometimes it will become apparent that what seems to be a single problem, is more accurately a series of sub-problems.  For example, in the problem:

“I have been offered a job that I want, but I don’t have the transport to get there and I don’t have enough money to buy a car.”

“I want to take a job” (main problem)“ But I don’t have transport to get there” (sub-problem 1) “And I don’t have enough money to buy a car” (sub-problem 2)

Useful ways of describing more complex problems are shown in the section, ‘Structuring the Problem’, below.

During this first stage of problem solving, it is important to get an initial working definition of the problem.  Although it may need to be adapted at a later stage, a good working definition makes it possible to describe the problem to others who may become involved in the problem solving process.  For example:


Working Definition

“I want to take a job, but I don’t have

the transport to get there and I don’t

have enough money to buy a car.”

“I want to take this job.”

Stage Two: Structuring the Problem

The second stage of the problem solving process involves gaining a deeper understanding of the problem. Firstly, facts need to be checked.


Checking Facts

“I want to take a job, but I don’t have the transport to get there

and I don’t have enough money to buy a car.”

“Do I really want a job?”

“Do I really have no access to transport?”

“Can I really not afford to buy a car?”

The questions have to be asked, is the stated goal the real goal?  Are the barriers actual barriers and what other barriers are there?  In this example, the problem at first seems to be:




Take the job

No transport

No money

This is also a good opportunity to look at the relationships between the key elements of the problem.  For example, in the ‘Job-Transport-Money’ problem, there are strong connections between all the elements.

By looking at all the relationships between the key elements, it appears that the problem is more about how to achieve any one of three things, i.e. job, transport or money, because solving one of these sub-problems will, in turn, solve the others.