Identifying and Structuring Problems

Continued from: Problem Solving.

This page continues from Problem Solving an Introduction that introduces problem solving as a concept and outlines the stages used to successfully solve 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.

In many organisations it is possible to set up formal systems of communication so that problems are reported early on, but inevitably these systems do not always work.  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:

Problem 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.

Problem 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:

Goal Barrier 1 Barrier 2
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.

This example shows how useful it is to have a representation of a problem.

Problems can be represented in the following ways:

  • Visually: using pictures, models or diagrams.
  • Verbally: describing the problem in words.

Visual and verbal representations include:

  • Chain diagrams
  • Flow charts
  • Tree diagrams
  • Lists

Chain Diagrams

Chain diagrams are powerful and simple ways of representing problems using a combination of diagrams and words.  The elements of the problem are set out in words, usually placed in boxes, and positioned in different places on a sheet of paper, using lines to represent the relationship between them.

Chain Diagrams are the simplest type, where all the elements are presented in an ordered list, each element being connected only with the elements immediately before and after it.  Chain diagrams usually represent a sequence of events needed for a solution.  A simple example of a chain diagram illustrates the job-transport-money example as as follows:


Flow Charts

Flow charts allow for inclusion of branches, folds, loops, decision points and many other relationships between the elements.  In practice, flow charts can be quite complicated and there are many conventions as to how they are drawn but, generally, simple diagrams are easier to understand and aid in 'seeing' the problem more readily.

Tree Diagrams

Tree diagrams and their close relative, the Decision Tree, are ways of representing situations where there are a number of choices or different possible events to be considered.  These types of diagram are particularly useful for considering all the possible consequences of solutions.

Remember that the aim of a visualisation is to make the problem clearer.  Over-complicated diagrams will just confuse and make the problem harder to understand.


Listing the elements of a problem can also help to represent priorities, order and sequences in the problem.  Goals can be listed in order of importance and barriers in order of difficulty.  Separate lists could be made of related goals or barriers.  The barriers could be listed in the order in which they need to be solved, or elements of the problem classified in a number of different ways.  There are many possibilities, but the aim is to provide a clearer picture of the problem.

‘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.’
Order in which barriers need to be solved

1. Get money
2. Get car
3. Get job

A visual representation and a working definition together makes it far easier to describe a problem to others. Many problems will be far more complex than the example used here.