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Problem restatement – a quick and dirty trick


One of the analytical techniques I’ve taught is something called ‘problem restatement’.  Usually, this is used in a way to provide focus into a maddeningly vague tasking.  One of the most common complaints I hear from analysts is that their supervisors and customers don’t know what they want.  So, their requests tend to be so general as to be worthless.  One example I got a couple of years ago:

Hey, can you give me a top ten list of threats to our state by the end of the day?

My mind reeled at the implications of that question.  Threats to whom?  What criteria would you like me to use?  What do you even mean by threat?  Natural?  Man-made?  Criminal (violent?, financial?), terrorism?

So, problem restatement has been a way for analysts to impose a little order on that chaos (or, just as often, convince people to drop the whole thing since answering those question would actually involve, like, work).

Lifehacker, reports on a story in Psychology Today about another valuable use of problem restatement.  Sometimes we get cognitively trapped by seemingly innocent words.  Therefore, if we’re struggling with a particular problem it can help to change the words we use to describe the problem.

For every word a person uses, psychologists say there is a mediating response which provides the meaning of that concept for that individual. Just what the mediating responses are for all words is not known. Many times they may not be responses in the usual sense but all provide meaning of that concept for that individual. When you change the words in your problem statement, you initiate an unobservable process in your mind that may lead to a perspective.

We’re not even aware of how words can box us in cognitively.  Some of that boxing will be individual and can be offset by bringing other people in to look at the problem (a bit of structured brainstorming, anyone) or they can be cultural (in which case more eyes might not mean anything).  Changing those words, however might free you from those cognitive traps (or, alternatively just put you in different boxes) and let you get on with it.

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