If you aim to solve a situation, focus on the problem rather than on solutions

This post is also available in: Spanish

My last post on Prevención Integral -the site by the Specific Research Centre for the Improvement and Innovation at Companies (CERpIE) of the Technical University of Catalunya- is entitled “Gestión de la PRL: la formulación de problemas, origen de grandes soluciones” (“OSH Management: problem formulation, source of great solutions”) and is all about the crucial significance of the systematic analysis of problems throughout a decision making process.

When a decision making process starts in an organization, the behavioural pattern of the people involved uses to focus on seeking solutions from the very early stage. You may question what´s wrong with this. To seek solutions is just the point, isn´t it? To solve situations in a quick and effective way. That´s what we are always requested.

Right, yes and no. Of course, the purpose of any decision making process is just that, to take decisive decisions. However, to think on directly on solutions, may not be the most effective and short method to reach a satisfactory result. It is preferable to focus on the problem.


This is the cornerstone of the decision-making methods I´ve been studying for a while, which are nowadays part of my routines at work, as they are really useful.

Namely, the first stage of the decision-making process is the identification and formulation of problems.

To know if you are facing a problem or not, you must find these two elements:

  1. a wish, objective which you -or the person of who you are analyzing a situation- haven´t already met;
  2. an “unwanted downside” which avoids to fulfil the objective. This is the dilemma.

Without a dilemma or a wish there is no problem.

In practice, these elements may be identified in any conversation with another person, be it in a personal or professional environment. To start the identification process, take note of the objectives or wishes that the other person or actor states. In a parallel column, take note of the dilemmas, the unwanted downside to the desired situation.

If you are able to identify objectives and dilemmas, you are facing a problem. Take care, objectives or dilemmas may often hide solutions or conclusions from the other person. To identify a problem is not a minor issue. Sometimes, we spend time in situations which are not a real problem, which may be a waste of time and a source of frustration.

Once the objectives and dilemmas are identified, you can make a problem formulation. It consists of a sentence, a statement gathering the problem and dilemmas of the persons or actors to whom you are talking.

And with these three items (objective, dilemmas and problem formulation) you can start a methodical analysis of the situation which will lead to an wider and, for sure, sound decision-making.

So, this approach is the opposite to the instinctive impulse of thinking directly in solutions. It is all about seeking a solution throughout a problem analysis.

If you want to go into depth on the issue and see a simple example of its application, I refer to the post at Prevención Integral (in Spanish).

DE HAAN, Alexander, DE HEER, Pauline. 2012. Solving complex problems. Eleven International Publishing. Pg 126 (image)
MAIRAL, DAVID. 17 Feb 2015. Gestión de la #PRL: la formulación de problemas, origen de grandes solucioneshttp://www.prevencionintegral.com/comunidad/blog/aragon-valley/2015/02/16/gestion-prl-que-es-que-no-es-problema. Prevención Integral. Consulted 17 Feb 2015.
DE HAAN, Alexander, DE HEER, Pauline. 2012. Solving complex problems. Eleven International Publishing.
ENSERINK, Bert, HERMANS, Leon, KWAKKEL, Jan, THISSEN, Wil, KOPPENJAN, Joop, BOTS, Pieter. 2010. Policy Analysis of Multi-Actor Systems. Uitgeverij LEMMA.