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This is the first of many articles I will be writing to support practitioners and partnerships as they work on problems.  The general public will also find this information useful when considering what crime prevention solutions to use.  This article’s aim is to help you define a problem and identify the common errors when people write down their problems. (PARTNERS)

Good luck! - Neil

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A definition of Problem Solving

There are many definitions of problem solving, but my preferred definition was written by the author Michael Stevens:

“Problem solving is transforming one set of problems into another preferred state”

This and the forthcoming articles will take you through the different stages of a problem solving approach that can help you transform those circumstances to get you to your preferred state.

Defining a problem

Defining the problem accurately is the keystone of problem solving.  Define it incorrectly and all subsequent work could be aimed at the wrong ‘goalposts’.

A well-defined problem can usually be recorded in one sentence, but be prepared for it to take a long time to get it right.  If it is two or more paragraphs, you are likely to have more than one problem or you do not know what it is.

As a general rule it normally takes between 14 and 20 words to describe one problem clearly.

Expect to go back and redefine your problem when you know more about it.  This normally comes about when you are undertaking your research or after you have put in different measures, described as actions.

Problem with problems?

On examining many problems over the years I have found that there are seven common mistakes that people make when defining their problems.  Here they are.

  1. Multiple problems 
  2. Making a statement
  3. Consequences
  4. Implied cause
  5. Not being clear
  6. Jargon
  7. Aim not a problem


1              Multiple Problems

If you can’t describe your problem in a single sentence, you’ve probably got more than one problem. This is the most reoccurring problem with problems I face as an advisor.  There could be many problems taking place and for convenience they have all been grouped together for no other reason than they share the same location.

For example, ‘ Everyone is late for the Conference’.   You must separate the problems or you’ll be setting aims that cannot be met and your Action Plan will not work.  Be specific e.g.  Poor directions from the train station, not enough cabs, the hotel lifts are slow or not enough parking spaces.

If you have identified more than one problem and you need to work on them all, then you have the option of grouping them under a broader Strategic Aim.  This will make it easier to coordinate the separate problems, respective partners and interventions.  For example, you may be responsible for a shopping centre and be experiencing a decline in the numbers of people coming to shop there.  The strategic aim could be “To increase the prosperity of the ABC Shopping centre”.  

The problems which are present, working against your Strategic Aim could be, traffic congestions; parts of the area are decaying; you have two empty stores, and a main store (known as an anchor store as it holds the others in place) is threatening to withdraw.  As well as partners for the individual problems, you are most likely to have strategic level partners who share your strategic aim.

2              Making a Statement

This is where what you’ve recorded is a statement rather than a problem.  A way to test whether the problem has been described as a statement is to ask questions such as “So why is that a problem or so what?”  ‘So what’ is a very powerful method to draw out the exact problem, but can be misinterpreted as not caring.

For example ‘ Cars driving up and down the sea front at night.’   So what?  It’s better to isolate specific problems being caused e.g. ‘ Cars being raced recklessly causing danger to pedestrians.’

3              Consequences

This is where what you have described are the consequences or symptoms of the problem, rather than the problem itself.  For example, ‘ Injuries from broken bottles’  as opposed to, ‘ The sale of alcohol to under-aged youths resulting in drunk and disorderly behaviour and assaults .’

If you and your partnership only have the capability to tackle the consequences, then acknowledge that’s what you’re doing and select the most applicable response from the Impact Scale. This will be covered in a later article. 

Another example could be miners trapped in a tunnel.  The fact they are trapped is most likely to be as a result of a collapse of the roof or walls, which in turn was a consequence of mining activity; the measures in place (or lack of them) to prevent the collapse, or the way the rock has been formed.  To be more efficient at dealing with the collapses the mining industry have set up escape rooms with food and drink at different points within the mines for the miners to seek shelter until they are rescued.  It was such a room that meant the miners trapped in a Chilean mine in 2010 survived after such a long period to rescue them.

4              Implied Cause

This is where a person has added, though not directly, what they believe to be the cause into their definition.  For example ‘ We are unable to provide training opportunities at all of our sites across London as we do not have an office at each site’ .  Are you basing your definition on what you know or what you believe?  The problem is only being examined with one possible cause in mind.  This means that other factors contributing to the problem could be missed.

5              Not being clear

Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that, on occasions, some people have not understood the problem and not had the confidence to say so.  They then mask this with terminology that sounds knowledgeable but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Therefore, clarity is all important if you want people to understand the precise nature of the problem.  Plain English should be used always.  Plain English can be defined as that which any reasonable person can understand by reading a sentence once.   The main advantages of plain English are that you get your message across more often, more easily and in a friendlier way and it is faster to read.

6              Jargon

The use of acronyms is exclusionary as most organisations have their own jargon which means nothing to people from other organisations.  This isn’t an issue until you want to work with and involve other partners.  Then it can be one of the biggest blocks to working together and making sense of information.  Do you want to have to employ an interpreter for every meeting?  If in doubt, explain an acronym or, even better, get rid of it.

7              Aspirational

This is where someone records the aim without defining the problem.  For example, ‘ We want more people to come into the town centre at night’ , as opposed to identifying the reasons why people don’t come and defining them as separate problems.  However, at a later point, this is a great way to open a session dedicated to generating ideas.

Another example is where an organisation sets a target of recruiting a certain number of volunteers. Though very positive, it may miss the point of the problem.  In this case the problem was that previously recruited volunteers left after only a very short period of time.  The problem could then be described as  ‘Volunteers leave our organisation very soon after joining, which is costly in both time and resources.’

In fact if the organisation had identified this as a problem, the need to recruit more may not have been necessary, and those already volunteering could have been used to recruit others, as personal recommendations are very effective in making people choose to do something.

If you want to know more about this topic then please contact Neil via his DIRECTORY entry at this link

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Updated February 2015