What You See (Part 1): The Problem

In all our efforts to find solutions for our problems, perhaps our greatest challenge is seeing the problem itself. It's quite the puzzle.

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[This blog post is one in a series focused on Collaboration. To read more, visit here.]

Spread across the dining table are a few thousand jigsaw pieces. You are looking to get started but the box top is missing. If it was a couple of dozen or so pieces, no problem. But it’s not. You have a general idea of the picture these pieces become when all put together, but without the box top, you will probably give up if persistence isn’t your middle name. The first step might be to get some help. Help can be powerful. The largest number of jigsaw puzzle pieces ever assembled was 551,232 by 1600 students at the University of Economics in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.[i] That’s collaboration!

What if we had the box top for the massive jigsaw puzzle called human needs and community development? In all our efforts to find solutions for our problems, perhaps our greatest challenge is seeing the problem itself. When assembling a puzzle, we start with sorting the pieces. We find the corner and edge pieces, then we gather the matching colors and patterns. The aim is to use a sorting method for working through all the pieces in front of us so that what is complex can be made more manageable.

Why must we go through all of this work to define the problem? Because a solution won’t work if designed and developed based on a wrongly defined problem. At least not fully. The accuracy of the solution depends upon how accurately the problem was defined. Herein lies the problem with the problem – accuracy. Some problems are simple. Some are extremely complex. The park bench that is starting to rust? You paint it. The chronically homeless man who is sleeping on that bench? Well, that’s a different kind of problem.

The problem of problems is not new. One famous attempt at simplifying the discussion was from the philosopher William of Occam (aka Ockham) way back in the 1300s. Known as Occam’s Razor this approach to problem solving encourages us to go with the simplest explanation. He wasn’t the first with this idea, but he got the credit because he discussed it so often. Hundreds of years later, Hickam’s Dictum emerged declaring there are as many explanations as necessary. These opposing ideas are most often found in medical diagnoses.[ii] What they both share, in my opinion, is the idea of “necessity.” What do we need to know?

Beyond the philosophical arguments and counterarguments, and put simply…

The problem is what it is.

Just like the puzzle is what it is, with or without the box top, so is the problem you face. What eludes us is that we don’t know enough about the problem to accurately define it. We can speak generally of homeless families, suicide, generational poverty, healthcare access, domestic violence, education shortfalls, or human trafficking, but how much do we actually know?

There are also tensions found in interpretations. Puzzle box tops don’t allow for interpretation, nor do the puzzle pieces in the final form. Human problems bring massive levels of interpretation. Because of the presence of interpretation, sometimes honesty about the problem brings a strong feeling of danger to the process of defining. We feel we can’t go there because we don’t want to discuss some things in a room of mixed and conflicting interpretations. Okay, so go for the win. What problem does it seem the people who are willing to be in the room can agree on? Go with that one for now.

Near the end of this blog post, I introduce the initial stages of a process to cultivate an atmosphere for problem-defining and, ultimately, solution-designing. It can be of help for the problem-solving process as well as your personal life journey.

When problem-solving, our first step is often to look at the data to find the concrete elements of what we find abstract and intangible. You might see data as the corner and edge pieces.

The Data
Collections of facts and statistics are helpful information. Data provides measures without the weaving of emotion. We’ll get to our humanity later. For now, let’s consider the gathering of information and how we can use it to define problems. I’m not providing professional research training here. I aim to help us move beyond talking about our challenges to defining them with as much accuracy as possible so we can solve them.

There are many ways to measure elements of us as people and the surrounding world in which we live – distance, power, size, time, height, weight, temperature, pressure, grades, quality, brightness, quality…the list goes on. The sheer volume of all you can measure will weigh you down, so beware of getting stuck here.

In conversation with others who share a concern about the same issue, brainstorm the measures that matter as a starting point. What information do you need to inform your definition of the problem you face? Some data needs will be the same from one issue to the next. But problems can differ significantly. What you need to understand suicide among your neighbors will not be the same as diabetes.

Do you already collect that data or do you need a means of gathering? If you need a HIPPA-compliant case management tool that can help collect data along the way, CharityTracker is my recommendation. You can learn more and set up a demo at It was built for collaboration, outcomes, and community impact. With it you will start with your data collection pointed in the right direction. The more organizations in your community using this tool together, the more powerful and helpful the collected data will be.

Technicolor or black-and-white may be a debate with old films, but it shouldn’t be a debate for problem-solving. In its day, Technicolor was described as “the natural color process.” When seeking to define a problem with the utmost clarity we need the full spectrum of natural color available from the data. Try assembling a substantial black-and-white jigsaw puzzle. Color adds details and definition which helps piece things together. If you are trying to define something, the more definition you can bring to the definition the better. Let the data paint as many natural color details as it will.

How deep do we go? Are we just touching the surface or are we getting to the layers of the problem? Dissecting the problem will provide abundantly more information than just assuming from the surface what is happening at the core. To add another image to help us to see, data can drill down on an issue. This may mean going outside your single data source and to municipal, state, and federal data sources. Consider what other communities are working or have worked to define the same issues. Conversations with the people living with the problem will also help to add layers to your understanding. More on that below.

Here is one of the game changers that time affords. Data gives us patterns. This is why shared community case management databases like CharityTracker matter so much. The invitation here is not to over-analyze, but to look long enough that you can isolate patterns. Those patterns can lead us to repeatedly ask “Why?” to help isolate causation.

Study the outcomes of previous resource allocation and solution efforts. Consider both individuals with whom you have worked and the community at large. Where do you see repetition and redundancy? Is there consistency, such as the same time each month? What do these patterns tell you? How do they inform your definition of the problem?

WARNING: Don’t attribute meaning without seeking understanding. Our isolated interpretations of numbers can misguide, misinform, and misdiagnose. Get the story from the people, not just the data.

The People
In the movie Patch Adams, there is a hospital scene where Patch takes the trajectory of questions all about patient data and a declaration of possible amputation and turns to a question about the person. Standing in a hallway of a teaching hospital, as a woman lays on the gurney, clearly afraid, Patch asks, “What’s her name?” He then says, “Hello Marjorie.” His single question and subsequent kind hello created a shift, even in the patient as her face went from fear to a smile.

We need the data, but absent the person we get lost in collecting information. We forget that we seek to foster life. In a previous blog post, “Art of Conversation,” I discussed the need for a willingness to listen and learn. Hearing from the person when seeking to define the problem lends perspective to the data. The story helps us to listen to the data with different ears and to interpret what we have gathered with a more complete understanding. The person may be troubled, but we should see the person as having a problem and not being the problem. It changes how we act toward them.

Perspective lends to our perception of information. Develop your perception of the problem by changing the angle from which you view the data. Stand in their shoes, walk in their world, sit in their seat, and see it from their point of view. It is interesting how shifts happen when we gain understanding.

Simply Available
From my years working with people and communities, and from my life journey a process for processing emerged that I call “Simply Available.” I’ll briefly unpack the first three stages here to help create a problem-defining atmosphere.

Processing well takes time. Not necessarily an abundance of time, but we do need to avoid jumping to conclusions. Sometimes if I process just a little more, gaining a little more information and perspective, I change my course of action. Ask the question and then Sit, Sense, and Sort.

To be completely here in conversation. “Sit! Are you serious? We’ve been sitting and waiting long enough!” I hear it and I get it. Part of the problem is that we don’t get to the accurately actionable material. I’m not encouraging over-processing. At the same time, jumping to conclusions leads to being woefully confused and frustrated, which extends the lack of success. Conversations as a problem-defining team, with the data, and with the people put us in the position to move toward action with knowledge, wisdom, understanding, clear intentionality, accuracy, and confidence.

To be keenly aware in exploration. Gain a sense of the problem by literally picturing a person or group of people living out the problem under consideration. It may seem strange, but close your eyes and let the video play in your mind of that situation. Open your eyes and take some notes along the way, then close them again to recapture the scene that was playing in your mind. Put yourself in a quiet space and allow plenty of time for this work.

Another layer to Sense is as the data begins to come in. Sit with it long enough to gain a keen awareness of the details to understand – the technicolor and layers. Explore the emerging information until you see some patterns, then move into the sorting phase.

To be deeply attuned to revelation. As you capture information through the sitting and sensing process, begin to sort through what has been revealed. This stage is particularly helpful as you collect more data and stories for patterns. Avoid collecting and quickly moving on to defining the problem. You will be tempted to do so, but sometimes the cycle of Sit, Sense, and Sort needs to run a good number of times with what is emerging before you’re ready to move on.

Utilize Simply Available multiple times throughout learning from the data and the people. At the beginning of your problem-defining work, be simply available as you assess what you need to know and dig into. Be simply available as you are in the middle of data collection and conversations with the people. I will continue to unpack and refer to Simply Available in future posts, helping to cultivate this capacity.

Action Points

  • Over time, the picture of the problem begins to take shape as the puzzle comes together. It would be faster if we had the box top, but we don’t. Invite some people, draw on the ideas and processes found in this post, and see what develops.

  • Work as two teams: the data and the people. Those who love data work with data. Those who love people have conversations with people. Then, come together and see the definition that emerges.

  • Cultivate your capacity to Sit, Sense, and Sort by practicing in your daily life, even with the smallest decisions you make. It’s a transforming habit to develop.

This is just Part 1! Part 2 is The Solution! THAT’S what we are after. But don’t assume and jump to conclusions. As I have noted, the reason we must do Part 1 well is so we do Part 2 well. Don’t run from the problem piled in front of you, and don’t do this work alone. Invite some friends and work on the puzzle together.

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Do you desire to strengthen your
CharityTracker or OasisInsight network to new levels of collaboration and impact? Reach out to Chuck today to schedule your conversation:

ED645C80-CA25-41C2-8B6E-A6E7FA346EC1_1_201_aDr. Chuck Coward serves as Community Impact Specialist for Simon Solutions, Inc. Chuck has invested over 35 years in fostering human and community development from a variety of places and roles, including as a pastor, non-profit Executive Director, Director of Development, businessman, consultant, university professor, The Struggle Coach, and the founder of Entrusted Foundation. Serving to make people and communities stronger is his great passion. Chuck is the proud husband to Anita, dad to four, and granddaddy to eight.

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