Well-defined vs. Ill-defined Problems

for Everyday Strategic Co-Creation

Well-defined problems are assumed to be already known with only a few existing "right answers" to solve it.

Ill-defined problems are ambiguous problem statements where the true problem (or problems) and opportunities have yet to be determined. This requires a robust process of discovery.

Knowing the difference between the two is the key to understanding why some strategy and tactics fail. Maybe it had nothing to do with execution, but how the original problem was defined.

In the arena of nonprofit strategic planning, leaders and staff face a dilemma where many organizational challenges are subtly treated as already known. For example:

"Our labs are too slow in processing medical samples; staff is getting overloaded and spending more time at work than needed, so let's spend six figures making our labs bigger and technologically advanced."

Organizations are keen to throw money at a problem, believing bigger is better. Likewise, strategic planners are apt to rush the same nonprofit into accepting those assumptions "as is" without evaluating them. When that happens, their fate has been sealed and money has been spent to formulate a robust yet expensive annual plan.

The plot twist: Perhaps there was a problem in the processing of samples as they travel to the lab. Could a task force be designed to observe this? Depending on what is discovered, could small inexpensive fixes in this process delivery be all that's needed?

One of the most important collaboration phases to facilitate is in the beginning: Problem-Defining, Fact Gathering, and Reframing the problem are all crucial activities. As a matter of fact, breakthroughs occur when team members can creatively reframe their issues.

"What if we're looking at things the wrong way?"

Not one person will have complete information, nor will they have all the answers.

Seek practitioners who:

  • Know the meanings and differences between well-defined and ill-defined problems and can make the connection to your nonprofit's needs.
  • Introduce new skills, activities, and a safe space where team members can fully test their assumptions and creatively redefine old strategic issues.
  • Help you create heterogenous teams with varying expertise, perspectives, and creativity styles to make new discoveries possible.

Ill-defined Strategic Problems

Ambiguity is an acceptable starting point

  • Do we really need innovation? Or just an improvement?
  • Would an innovation in this area really give us the breakthrough we're looking for? Or would an improvement?
  • What exactly needs innovating?

Well-defined Strategic Problems

Ambiguity as a strategic starting point is not tolerated.

  • Problems are preframed.
  • Only a few solutions are possible
  • Adverse to new ideas, solutions, or possibilities

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