Generic And Specific Problem Statements: What Is The Difference And Why Is This Important?

The fact of the matter is that problems and solutions are what make the world go around. Darkness and light, hunger and food, thirst and water, broken down car and garage, and so on and so forth. For the purposes of this discussion, let us set the higher level, more philosophical nature of problems and solutions aside, and narrow this concept down to our little sphere of business, entrepreneurship, innovation, and engineering. Why? Because, the innovation journey begins with the identification of a problem, creates entrepreneurs who apply engineering (amongst other things) to find solutions, and upon success, develop businesses around this.

Identification of problems usually involves three stages that I touched upon in an earlier post. The context is a bit different, but the application is the same. Awareness that something is not right, knowledge of what is not right and understanding of why it is so. Of course, we are all familiar with the double diamond method, brain storming and many other tools we use. However, they are just tools, and tools only work correctly when used correctly.

Before finding solutions, we must define the problem precisely. Keeping this in mind, problem statements (not problems themselves) fall into two categories. Let us call the first category ‘generic problem statements‘. These, more often than not, represent the manifestation of an underlying cause, rather than the problem itself. In other words, they set the scene, or report an observation.

Example: My car has broken down.

A broken-down car is a problem of course, but as you notice, it is an observation that the car is not working as intended, which is the result of an underlying cause. The solution to this problem is simply to get the car working again. Problem solved, right! Now, this is where, we go deep into the underlying cause, when we ask the question, how to get this car working again. This brings us to the second category of problem statement, which we will call ‘specific problem statements‘.

How well you develop solutions to problems will depend on how well you understand the underlying cause(s) and how deep you dig into the problem. Again, you have tools for this, such as ‘five why’ method where you ask the question ‘why is it so’ five times, but then, they are only tools. As you dig deeper, your problem definition becomes more and more specific, until you reach what we call the ‘root cause’.

The generic problem statement will eventually be broken into multiple possibilities, and each possibility will lead to a specific problem statement, each of which will present a root cause. This is where you will start developing actual solutions.

Therefore, it is important to identify and distinguish between generic and specific problem statements, if real and long-lasting solutions are to be developed and deployed.

The image below, presents a couple of levels of digging into the generic problem statement to derive specific problem statements.

Problem Statements

To summarise this post, here are three takeaways:

  1. Problem statements fall into two categories: generic and specific
  2. Generic category problem statements are usually a manifestation of an underlying cause
  3. Specific problem statements focus on the real cause, and this are what will need solving

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