Perhaps the common definition: a complaint, misgiving or objection.
A very simple definition: a condition that’s not acceptable.
Here’s one specific to problem solving: a situation, matter or person that presents perplexity or difficulty.
A fourth, aligned with creative problem-solving: a question to be considered, solved or answered.
In The Concept of a Problem, Gene Agre defines a ‘problem’ exactly: The gap between the current state of affairs and the desired state of affairs. If we take Agre’s definition a step further, the problem simply defines what is or might be standing in the way of the goal being achieved.
The side photo visualises Agre’s definition. ‘A’ is now, or the current state of affairs. ‘B’ is the future, or the desired state of affairs. The gap between them is where the idea lives, and what the idea must bridge. If the idea doesn’t bridge this gap, it won’t solve the problem.
The Point A – Point B analogy can also be used internally, within organizations. If Point A is today’s business environment, and Point B is the business goal or project objective. The gap includes the issues which need to be addressed in-house before any external program can commence. For example, a lack of logistical infrastructure or operational resources, limited communications between departments, delayed product delivery, no effective sales training.
The problem can range anywhere from simple to devastating. If launching a new product, the problem may be nothing more than the target audience has never heard of it or the company. On the other end of the spectrum, the problem might be anger or hatred if the target audience believes an organisation caused a major injustice, committed a crime, been immoral, or feels betrayed. Arguably the most difficult problem to solve is apathy: the audience simply doesn’t care.
The problem doesn’t need to a problem per se. It may be a wish or a desire. For example, parents may wish to save time cooking so they can spend more time with the children. An executive may wish for one gadget to simplify their diary.
Ultimately, the final point is this: you must know precisely what the problem is. When you do, you’ll be more creative at finding the best solution.
* As an addendum, you may need to change how you frame the problem. For more information on ‘framing’, go here to start. Or, search the tags for ‘framing’ or ‘reframing.’