Is the problem you're working on really the one you need to solve? More often than you might guess, it's not. Instead, you may be working on just the symptoms of the problem you really need to address. Think of a patient and doctor. The patient walks into the doctor's office with signs and symptoms that something is not right.
The doctor takes in the information the patient provides, along with what he or she observes. The "presenting problem" becomes more apparent, and perhaps the doctor has enough information at this point to know what the real problem is, too.
But if the real problem isn't clear, the doctor orders tests. When it becomes clear what the patient's condition really is, the doctor makes a diagnosis, may offer a prognosis, and develops a treatment plan. The patient then implements the treatment plan, working further with the doctor, as needed.
Chasing the wrong problem - in medicine or in any circumstance - wastes a lot of valuable time, money and energy. Meanwhile, the real problem and its impact continue to grow. As that occurs, the circumstance may eventually become far more difficult, if not impossible, to solve.
How can you identify the real problem you have to address, when problem-solving is part of your work or life? Here are a few things you can try:
1. State the problem you think you're facing. Then collect data to verify the "presenting problem," or to refine your understanding of it. Revise the problem statement as you work, because you may need to come back to it as you go through the problem-solving process.
2. Check with the people who are most affected by the impact of the problem. They may not know what the real problem is - or they may. But they're probably the most passionate about getting it solved. As a result, their description of the problem they think you should solve is likely to be very clear, simple, and concrete. That may help you to see the problem in a similar light.
3. Fill in the statement, "The problem is...," as simply as you can, in ten different ways. See where the different problem statements lead you, and how these ideas affect your understanding of what the real problem may be.
4. Consider how different the ideal situation is from the situation you have now. That may give you ideas about the problem and the circumstances that may be causing it, which you need to ease or eliminate.
5. Imagine that this problem has been solved, and everything is working perfectly. Then imagine you are recalling the way that the causes of the problem were eliminated. Viewed from that perspective, what do you imagine the real problem was and what made it go away? Use that information to help you clarify the problem now, as action to solve it gets underway.