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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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4.3 What is a problem?

There are various ways of defining what is meant by the term ‘problem’. Typically, such definitions highlight the existence of a mismatch between how things actually are and some other, desired (or desirable) state of affairs. Van Gundy (1988, p. 4) goes further, and identifies preconditions that are necessary if you want to start problem solving:

  1. the existence of a gap between what is and what should be
  2. an awareness that a gap exists
  3. the motivation to decrease the gap
  4. an ability to measure the size of the gap
  5. the abilities and resources required to close the gap.

Put another way (one that sounds a bit more personal or informal):

  1. Things aren’t right.
  2. I know that things aren’t right.
  3. I want to make things better.
  4. I can tell if the situation gets better or worse.
  5. I can influence this situation for the better.

The language used to define ‘problem solving’ carries certain implications which (in the spirit of creative deconstruction) are worth bringing into awareness and examining.

  • What ‘things’ aren’t right? These could be relationships, as well as objects and people. Where shall I draw the boundary?
  • What do I mean by ‘… aren’t right’? Could this include decisions that need making, opportunities and possibilities that might be explored, creating something new that hadn’t previously existed, and improving something that’s already ‘right’ (but could be even better)?

In practice, ‘problem-solving’ techniques often help in situations that we perceive in more positive, or neutral, terms. So, for our purposes, we can conveniently use the term ‘problem’ as a shorthand to include issues, opportunities, challenges, concerns, difficulties, messes and the like.

Activity 6 Is this a problem for solving?

Think of a challenging situation, a difficult decision, an opportunity for change, or some issue that could be considered problematic. Then, use either of the five-point lists preceding, in combination with some ‘5Ws and an H’ questions to run a quick check on whether this is a problem amenable to an attempt at solving it.

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For example, you could ask (and briefly answer):

  • Who thinks things aren’t right in this situation?
  • How do I know that things could be better?
  • Why do I (or someone else) want the situation to change?
  • What will show me that matters are improving?
  • Where could I make my influence felt in this context?

This activity might start you thinking in a new way about your problem, might confirm what you are already sure of, or might suggest that you don’t yet know enough about the issue. Or you might conclude that this issue is too trivial to be a real problem, or too big to tackle – in which case, you might consider whether it is worth addressing a smaller part of the issue.