Five steps to identify the core problem
The five steps to clarify the core problem revolve not only around problems but also take a rewarding detour through the underlying goals. To better understand the five steps, let us first clarify the fundamentals and delve into two brief digressions. The first digression concerns the connection between problems and goals, while the second addresses the fact that both problems and goals occur in chains, where an underlying problem (or goal) always refers to an overarching problem (or goal).
Digression 1: The connection between problems and goals
When we think about or read about problems, it quickly becomes clear that the problems we encounter are closely related to our goals. No matter how precisely we define a problem, it always boils down to the fact that we are pursuing a goal but cannot achieve it because something stands in our way. It seems that we can only encounter problems when we pursue a goal. Conversely (somewhat theoretically), someone who truly has no goal will surely have no problem.
We will leverage this connection and the fact that a problem always “points” to a goal when we go through the five steps that lead us from a tangled problem story to the core problem on which we will build our further solution finding.
Digression 2: Chains of goals, chains of problems
Now let us take a closer look at how matters of goal achievement and the associated problems are structured. They manifest as chains of goals or chains of problems, and we want to examine these chains more closely.
Let’s start with a chain of problems. When we read it from top to bottom, it looks like this: We have a problem A that we want to solve. However, problem B at a lower level prevents us from solving A, and problem C at an even lower level prevents us from solving B. Conversely, when read from bottom to top, it means that problem C leads to the emergence of problem B, which in turn leads to the emergence of problem A.
An example of this would be that my car won’t start, which prevents me from going to the city, which in turn causes me to be late for the customer workshop and let my team down.
Depending on the specific circumstances, this chain can be longer or shorter.
The same applies to goals. I want to achieve a goal, but in order to achieve it, I must first achieve another supporting goal, and to achieve that supporting goal, I must first achieve a goal behind or beneath it, and so on.
Conversely, when read from bottom to top, it means that I want to accomplish something so that it enables something higher up, which in turn enables something even higher up, and so on. Analogous to the previous example: A running engine allows me to drive to the city and arrive on time, which is a prerequisite for me to actively support my team.
With these two digressions, we have covered all the basics and can now embark on the first step.
From the problem story to the core problem
In this part, we will discuss how to go from an unstructured, random problem story to the actual core problem.
[Step 1] From the problem story to any goal
The first step is to identify or deduce any goal in the problem story. I deliberately say any goal because at this moment, it is not important which goal in the previously discussed chain it represents.
If the problem expert does not directly state a goal, it may be necessary to infer goals from actions or statements about what they do not want—or simply ask them: What goal does this action serve? If they express something they do not want, what do they want instead?
[Step 2] From any goal to the actual goal
What we have now is called any goal. From this point, we want to arrive at the actual goal. The actual goal is the one that is relatively high up in the chain of goals but still within the sphere of influence.
Building the Chain
For our “some goal,” we now examine the context, meaning we find out which goals are above and below it. To move up the chain, we ask, for example: What is necessary or important to achieve this goal? To move down the chain, we ask, for example: What do you need to enable what is a prerequisite for this?
Finding the Actual Goal: Indicators that we have found the actual goal
Once we have built a chain of goals, we then wonder which goal is likely to be our actual goal. The chances are good that we are dealing with the actual goals if the following criteria apply:
- It is a personal goal, such as being able to use my skills in my job or having many people listen to the music I create.
- It is a commitment I have made, such as the promise to my boss that I will complete a detailed concept for Project XY on time before the customer workshop. Please note that what has been promised is not inherently a personal goal but becomes one when I make a binding commitment to another person.
- It is without alternatives. Ask the problem expert if there are alternatives to achieving this goal—whether another goal could be achieved instead. If we are dealing with a lower-level goal, the answer to this question is typically positive. If we are dealing with the actual goal, we will hear that the goal is indispensable.
- An average 14-year-old with no further information on the subject would understand why it is their goal. Your goal of leaving a good impression on the customer would probably be understandable to them without any further explanation. Your goal of going to the capital city today, however, would not.
Finding the Actual Goal: Indicators that we are already “above” the actual goal
We are too high up in the chain if the goal is no longer within our sphere of influence but pertains to other people, has moved too far away from the original situation and the involved players, or has no connection to a personal goal anymore.
Using the earlier example: Getting my car to start, driving to the city, and arriving at the customer workshop on time are supporting goals within my sphere. Ensuring that I make a great impression on my team or my boss and delivering an excellent presentation are possible actual goals within my sphere. However, doing these things so that my employer can continue to have good business with this customer in the future or so that my team or my boss can have an especially successful year are circumstances that lie outside my sphere of influence.
[Step 3] Two checks (challenging the actual goal)
Now follows an intermediate step in which we subject the identified goal to two examinations. In each examination, we can reach the conclusion that further pursuit of the core problem search is not necessary, and this goal or an equivalent can be achieved in a simpler way.
The first examination is the question of whether we could pursue a different goal that is easy to attain, or, in other words, not problematically blocked. For this purpose, we ask the problem expert questions such as: Is this the only way to make you happy? Or can you think of an alternative goal that would make you just as happy if achieved?
The second examination is the question of whether there is indeed an obstacle that currently makes it impossible to achieve this goal. For this, we ask the problem expert: Besides the ones that are problematically blocked, what other paths could you take to reach this goal?
If we conclude with the first question that there is no other goal, and with the second question that there are no alternative paths to the current goal, then we proceed with our process.
[Step 4] What is violating the actual goal?
It can be a hindering circumstance (from the outside) or another goal that I myself have.
Now that we know the actual goal and have confirmed it through our two examinations, we can ask in this step what prevents us from currently achieving the same.
Before we delve into identifying the specific thing that hinders our goal attainment, let’s first examine the nature of this thing. Here, I am referring to the distinction between a roadblock problem and a dilemma-type problem.
- We deal with a roadblock when our path to the goal is blocked by an external circumstance. For example, I want to complete a project, but urgently needed colleagues have other priorities.
- We encounter a dilemma when another goal, Goal B, interferes with Goal A and competes with it on the way. For instance, in my company, I want a role with a lot of responsibility, money, and prestige, but I also want to have a peaceful evening after work (and prefer not to receive urgent calls after 6:00 PM).
While both problem types are extensively discussed in the book, we will focus here on roadblock-type problems.
From the goal to the first problem candidate
Starting from the given actual goal, we now ask the problem expert questions such as:
- What is preventing you from achieving this goal now?
- What stands between you and the goal?
The answer to such questions becomes our first problem candidate.
[Step 5] From the first problem candidate to the actual problem
Having obtained a problem candidate, we once again move down the chain of problems until we reach the bottom problem that withstands two checks. We will discuss the questions for these checks shortly. This way, we approach the actual problem and ultimately find it. If we attempt to solve a problem that lies further down the problem chain than the actual problem, we would exclude many solutions that could have been helpful. On the other hand, if we try to solve a problem that is higher up the problem chain than the actual problem, we would be working outside the problem expert’s sphere of influence. In this case, we would not find many points of intervention that the problem expert can utilize.
So, we proceed as follows: From a given candidate for the actual problem, we move one step further down the chain of problems. For this, we ask coaching questions such as the following: How does this problem arise? What are the circumstances that sustain this problem? We examine the underlying problem that we receive as an answer to these questions in terms of solution relevance and the absence of alternatives.
Solution relevance means that by solving this problem, we simultaneously achieve the actual goal.
The absence of alternatives means that there is no other problem that we could solve instead to reach the actual goal.
Let’s return to the example of my car not starting. For my goal of providing optimal support to my team during the customer workshop, this problem is not solution-relevant. If I get my car running, it doesn’t automatically mean that my team is optimally supported; there are a few other things that need to happen. The same applies to the absence of alternatives. Could I solve a different problem instead of the motor problem? Yes, I could get another means of transportation and drive into the city.
The answers to these two questions yield two possibilities:
Either we see that by solving this candidate for the actual problem, we can achieve the actual goal, and there is no other problem that can be solved instead of this candidate for the actual problem. In this case, we consider this candidate as confirmed, move one step further down the problem chain, and perform our two checks for the new underlying problem.
Or one of the two checks is not passed. This means that solving the candidate for the actual problem does not directly lead us to the actual goal, or there is indeed another problem that we could solve instead of the candidate for the actual problem. In this case, we discard the current candidate for the actual problem and move back up the chain of problems to the last problem that passed our checks.
We have a confirmed core problem
We have succeeded: we have gone through all the steps of searching for the core problem, and now we have a confirmed core problem in front of us. In the next part, we will apply the 60 abstract solution principles to this problem and formulate our coaching questions.
Get the book!
My book “Problem Solving for Professionals” has all the details. I launched it in Summer 2022, and you can order it from Amazon.