Critical Thinking: Step 1 – Write the Problem Down!

Have you ever gotten down the path of a project or some chunk of work you’re grinding on and thought “what are we trying to do here?”

Well you’re not alone.

I have taught “critical thinking” methods for years now to undergraduate, graduate and experienced professional audiences. The vast majority consistently fail to use a coherent and consistent method of problem solving.

I’m going to focus a few posts this term on some of the core tools and techniques I teach to help individuals and teams be more disciplined in their thought process. If you really engage them you’ll be more efficient and effective as a professional.

The first we’ll call “Problem Definition”. I mean this comprehensively. The core of the exercise is writing down the one sentence question or description of the problem as you see it. But to do that we’ll talk about other aspects of the problem  to think through and document to ensure that we’re not missing “knowable” things from the start.

So why should I care about “Problem Definition”?

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

The Cheshire Cat to Alice in Alice in Wonderland

My favorite (and abused) quote about wandering sets up the importance of being hard headed about defining THE question you are trying to answer or problem you are trying to solve. Note the focus on 1 question…not 17.

Let me ask you a rhetorical question. If you don’t know what problem you’re supposed to be solving how will you know when you’re done? …Exactly. You won’t.

It’s impressive how much time can be wasted in an effort to show activity even when people don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing.

There are a number of other really important reasons (stakeholder buy-in, focus, clarifying your own thought process etc.), but “knowing what you’re trying to do” feels like sufficient rationale to me.

If it’s so important, why don’t we write things down more often?

Because we’re busy, think we know more than we do and forget that getting things done often requires others’ input.

Time/Business – We’re all busy so time spent thinking can often feel “wasted” in our frenetic work environment. “I don’t have time for that” is something I hear. Or “it’s ticky-tacky process nonsense, let’s just get going”.

I promise you that it’s important to “go slow to go fast”. Time spent thoughtfully early on will save you time in a number of ways later in the process. You’ll be more efficient.

Knowledge – We are consistently overconfident in what we think we know about problems. It often seems so straightforward so why bother to go through the hassle of a disciplined process?

Well, it’s usually not so obvious. We can mistake symptoms for causes, not understand inter-relationships between issues etc.

One of the strongest teaching points I make to all my students is the power and hidden benefits of writing down your perception of the problem you’re working on. The act of writing it down forces you to clarify your point and get it out of your head. I just taught a group of mature executives at an F500 company who all talked about how much harder it was to do than they thought.

Collaboration & Buy In

Putting a clear stake in the ground in print allows others to more easily give feedback, identify gaps or problems in your thinking and begins the act of gaining buy in. It’s much easier to help you if I understand what you’re thinking and asking my input increases the likelihood of getting to a quality answer with support.

So what do I do?

The basic template I encourage people to use and that I teach has 6 boxes. (It’s very sophisticated.)

1 – Situation – A statement about the current situation that everyone can agree with.

2 – Complication – A brief list and description of any complications that may be facing or challenging the situation (i.e. industry trends, market position). Think “why is there even a problem?”

3 – Stakeholders – A list of individuals or groups affected with brief description of how.

4 – Scope – A list what will and will not be included in the study.

5 – Problem – Your best 1 sentence description of the problem you are trying to solve.

6 – Hypotheses – Propose solution(s) that can be tested by further research and analysis to validate or disprove them.







Problem Definition Template

Why these categories? I’ve found over the years that these are the most critical “starters”.

The situation and complication get you to frame the problem and answer “why are we here?”

Stakeholders forces you to think through who is affected in more depth than I typically see. I put “failure to consider stakeholders” and/or “failure to get buy-in” as top failure modes for projects. The human/soft side often gets in the way, so anticipate this and begin working it early.

Scope forces you to begin thinking about what you won’t do. You never have enough time, resources or data so get ruthless about cutting out what isn’t important.

The Problem Statement becomes the organizing principle for all your thinking and work. If you can’t crisply define it, you aren’t done yet. One of the things that stands out about experienced consultants is how quickly they can cut to the key issue. It’s because they are doing this in their head from experience. They weren’t born able to do it. They recognize patterns through repetition and discipline.

Hypotheses are important to jot down because they become guides to your research. I teach that you should “jump to conclusions, but not anchor on them.” We all are creative and intuitive. It’s OK to think you know the answer(s). This process puts structure around gathering compelling evidence to prove or disprove key assumptions.

Some thoughts about the process:

Iteration is important. It’s hard to get things right in one sitting. Let it breathe. I find that jotting things down alone or in a group and then revisiting is very productive. The act of writing it down gets you thinking, but the thinking continues and evolves. So come back around.

Collaboration is important. The more complex or cross-functional the problem, the more diverse set of inputs you need to get things right. Whether this collaboration comes in group settings or from “walking it around” in 1:1s isn’t important. Get other perspectives. You don’t have to agree with all of them, but they tune your thinking.

Tools are to be used, but don’t get used by them. I teach three main ideas in this area.

1 – “Don’t check your brain at the door”. The point of the tool is to help structure your thinking not substitute for it.

2 –  “GEMO” or “good enough move on” means know when you’re at an appropriate level of clarity and go forward. You could spend a lot of time striving for “perfect”. I’d go for “good” unless you’re designing a heart valve or something requiring “precision”.

3 – “Precision vs. accuracy”. This goes hand in hand with GEMO. Know what level of detail is generally required in your answer or process given where you are. Do you need to be able to say “it’s bigger than a breadbox” or “this is the algorithm for landing the Mars Rover”?

This is part of a thought process. Other tools that I’ll walk through in future posts build off this foundation, so getting it wrong will just force you to come back later. Might as well get it right from the start…

These tools fit into other methodologies. For example, if your organization has a formal project management method that includes a project charter these boxes will look familiar. I still encourage doing this separately and integrating content into charter because these boxes are the juicy ones. The charter is important, but starting with it can become an administrative, rather than an analytical process. You can get bogged down in minutiae.

As with most of what I teach, this seems SO obvious as to be almost simple-minded advice. And yet…I don’t see a lot of people doing it. So I encourage you to take a shot at trying this. It will enhance your effectiveness.

Part 2 can be found here:

One thought on “Critical Thinking: Step 1 – Write the Problem Down!

  1. Phil, sure appreciated your view. I think you are right on. I eventually learned this after many years of new product development. I hope people make it easier on themselves by embracing your teachings. I found another way to help focus the work on the “real problem or opportunity”was to to clearly sttate (again in writing) what my “deliverable” was going to be. Keep writing and teaching. Curt

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