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You now need to know as much as you can about the problem, the history, what is happening now and what is likely to be causing it: Undertaking your Research and Analysis. (PARTNERS)

What is Research?

Systematic inquiries into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories and applications, presented in a detailed, accurate manner.

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The reluctance to spend time on the research

An all too common feature of Problem Solving is the situation when people presented with a problem feel compelled to solve it without taking time to really study the problem. I don’t know why, but I meet it all the time. Maybe it’s their natural make up that prompts them to reach for an immediate solution. Maybe it’s conditioning from their work environment.

Think about how many recruitment processes include giving the candidate a problem to solve within a set time period. I doubt many people would have progressed through to the next round if they had responded with answers like “Before I start on this, could I check to see who wants this resolved and ask them why we should bother?”

I could take this point further and consider how many people would have been selected for the position if they had responded with the statement, “I am concerned that I could make the situation worse, as I don’t know enough about this problem, and therefore at this stage I will do nothing”.

Yet, think about how many problems you have seen that have been made worse by someone making decisions before knowing the facts and the true context of the problems within them.

So, when you are looking at a problem, watch to make sure that you, or the group, do not push on without really getting to know everything about the problem. It is not a popular position to hold, but you have to ask the others, “Are we happy we know enough about the problem before we start committing time and resources to it?”

Identify where the demand to do something is coming from

As well as finding out all about the problem, such as when, where and how long it’s been going on, you need to know very early on, what is behind the drive to have something done. In fact, I would recommend that defining the problem, considering an aim and identifying the demand is done almost simultaneously.

The three key questions you need to ask to establish the demand are: 

  • Who is asking?
  • What is it they want?
  • Why is it important to them?

When asking about the demand you may have to trace back, almost like a family history, to the source of the demand. Sometimes it might be easy, but on other occasions it may have come from a Company Directive, a broader initiative or from legislation.

Managing expectations of those making the demand

Another reason to establish early what they want is that they may want something which is unrealistic. It is best, therefore, they know before you embark on the problem solving initiative. It is only when you embark on Problem Solving that you see how unrealistic some expectations are.

Finding out why?

Another reason why it is important to confirm what it is that someone wants is that you may work towards a solution that misses the point of why they raised the problem in the first place. Therefore, you need to find out what’s motivating them to ask for something to be changed. If you don’t, you may either miss the point or even make the problem worse.

Speaking to the people making the demand

When I visit the people who are making the demand I am trying to get an idea of the problem, its context and the severity of it, to see why it is so important to them. What I have seen on many occasions (which is why I am mentioning it in this book) is that there are people who talk-up a problem, in terms of the scale and frequency of the impact it has on themselves and others.

Please go and visit the problem

I have been in far too many situations when the problems are plotted on a map, or stages of a process written out on flip chart paper and people gather around, stare at it, and then make an assessment on what the problem is. This is okay as a way to get people involved, but not when actions are decided as a result. When I have been in those situations, it reminds me of those magic eye posters in the 1990s where, if you just stared long enough, a 3D picture would emerge from what initially appeared to be random coloured dots. Unfortunately, the same does not happen such that, when you stare at the maps, a solution emerges.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to go and have a look at the problem, even though it may change when you look at it. The benefits are that you can see the dynamics of the problem and its relationship with everything around it. The visit will also enable you to see the problem in context, other influences and other people who also share the problem, your potential partners.

When you undertake the site visit try and find someone who can guide you, as they can show you the nuances of the problem, the significance of any events taking place and evidence that something has happened. For example, when examining for the presence of infestation of woodworm, an experienced person in that area will look for the signs that others would miss.

Please take your time. Stand still and take everything in. It’s a bit like looking into a river. Initially, you will only see the water but, after a short period of time, you will see items on the riverbed, the flow of the river and the fish. You need to see all the elements that make up your problem.

I also recommend that you take a camera to capture the problem, the scale and its position to other points of interest. These pictures are also very useful when you need to illustrate a report or a presentation.

Problems can change when you look at them

You could be inspecting processes within an organisation and the presence of someone from ‘Head Office’ results in everything being done by the book, and all those short cuts that cause the problems are set aside until the visit is over.

As a result, sometimes those needing to see the reality of a situation go undercover to identify the real problems and the methods employed to resolve them or mask them. This is why TV programmes that feature bosses going back to the ground floor are so informative for those taking part and why companies employ mystery customers.

Good questions to ask about the problem

Asking good questions will help you get to know all about the problem.  This is called ‘Convergent Research’ and here are the questions most used: 

  • What is the problem?
  • What’s going on?
  • What is causing the problem?
  • What is the same when the problem occurs?
  • What is different when the problem occurs?
  • What are the consequences of the problem?
  • What happened when it became worse and immediately before?
  • Who is involved?
  • Who is causing the problem?
  • Who is affected by the problem?
  • Who else is working on the problem?
  • When did the problem occur? When is it worse?
  • Where is the problem?
  • How long has it been a problem?
  • Is the problem getting bigger, smaller or staying the same?
  • How much is the problem costing?


So far the questions have been all about the problem. There is a different approach to asking questions and it is to ask the ‘opposites’. It is the approach to use when you are trying to make comparisons.

Here are some ‘opposite’ type questions. 

  • Who is not causing the problem?
  • Who is not affected by the problem?
  • When is the problem not present?
  • What is different when the problem does not occur?
  • What happened when it became better?
  • Where is there no problem?
  • Who does not share your problem?
  • Who is benefiting from the problem?

It does take time to get used to using them. When you get comfortable, you should mix them in with your regular questions. It is a very effective way of getting more information and on occasions can actually generate solutions. We will return to the ‘opposites’ when we are thinking about generating ideas to solve the problem.

The Analysis - making sense of the Research

When you have undertaken your research, you are going to have to undertake some analysis, which is making sense of what you have found. In short, the reason why?


When you do not know enough about a problem, even after your research, you may have to infer what it is? Inference is ‘The act of reasoning from factual knowledge or evidence.’ A way to do this is to make a tentative hypothesis in order to explain the facts and observations. The less you know the more you need to infer the cause.

Redefining your problem and resetting your aim

As we are working methodically through each stage of a Problem Solving Process to ensure each point is covered we will, by the very nature of the process, be looking and thinking about different stages. For example, as soon as you are looking at a problem, you will be thinking about solutions. There is a risk, however, that you research these ideas instead of researching the problem. Also, you may start putting in actions only to discover that you actually have two problems.

Therefore, we need to use the Problem Solving Stages as a guide and not a one way highway. This will allow you to move easily from one thing to another. To bind yourself to an inflexible structure does not work, as anyone who has dialled a Call Centre will appreciate. There is frustration when there are only limited prompts and your problem does not follow the order they predicted. You then have to try a different route or wait for the operator.

We are at one of those points of the Problem Solving Process where we are likely to have to go back on ourselves. For example, we have just completed the Research and Analysis stage and have made sense of what we have found. As a result, we are most likely to have redefined our Problem and are ready to set an achievable aim.

Where are you now with the problem?

A baseline is a measure of the problem, in effect where you are right now. This in turn will make it easier to show you whether the actions employed are having any effect on the problem. Otherwise you would never know if what you were doing was working or actually making the problem worse. Finally, it will help you to determine whether you achieved your aim.

Creating your own database

You could start counting things already taking place. If the problem is that you have too many people waiting in the queue at your store, then you could count the numbers in the queue. You could capture the baseline by taking photographs. You could, instead, use other measures, such as the time taken to get served or the existing customer satisfaction rating.

Spread your bets

You could use a number of different sources for your baseline. A wide range of indicators all showing the same thing will give your work and success more credibility. You should use the same methods at the end of your project when you are evaluating it.

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