Diagram showing the layers of a proble

A problem, especially a complex problem, can be deceptive in its presentation. Things are often not what they appear to be. If we rush to react to what it appears to be, we risk

Dissecting the anatomy of a problem can be visualised as moving through, or peeling back, a set of layers.

Each distinct layer has actions and insights. Cumulatively, as we move through the layers, we build up a concept of the real problem, the environment around the problem, and the state of mind of relevant stakeholders.

Once we reach the core of the problem, we can then begin the work of solving it, with the assurance that we are tackling the real issues at play.

Reality check

The outermost layer is the big picture view of the problem. We are not yet that invested in solving the problem. This is where we ask broad questions and engage in some preliminary fact finding to determine if this is an actual problem, or if it is a problem we need to resolve.

Observing what happens can give us insights into why this was identified, or perceived, as a problem. Is our (personal or organisational) early warning systems defective or overly sensitive? How do we correctly identify problems? Are we prone to taking on more responsibility that is reasonably warranted?

A lot of problems are not really problems. Or they are not ours to fix.


At this stage of our adventure, we may take action in response to the apparent symptoms. These could be ameliorating steps undertaken to deal with any imminent threats. Or unfortunately, they are commonly knee jerk responses that worsen the situation.

Observing how you describe the problem, make decisions, take actions, at this stage where you really don’t know enough yet have enough information) can reveal a bit more of the context of the problem.

Is the organization prone to panicking? Are people apathetic and in denial? Or quick to pull together to act in unison?

These reactions can point to cultural patterns and beliefs that may be contributing to the problem, or may be strengths to leverage in the future.


Understanding the context of the problem requires us to examine assumptions, dig out obvious and not-so-obvious factors, collate opinions and facts; all with as much professional detachment as we can muster.

Context gives us raw data into the possible contributors (culture, systems, technology, tools etc) to the problem, the triggers, the perpetuating factors, and the impact should the problem go unresolved. Context also gives us insights into the people aspect – assumptions, agendas (legitimate or otherwise) and their drivers.

All problems have a people component, however small. All solutions inevitably also involve people.

The core problem

At this stage, we gather up all the insights we have collected along the way, and complete the Problem Conceptualisation. We are able to clearly articulate what enabled the problem to surface, the triggers of the problem, how the problem manifests, what sustains the problem, and what attacks the problem. (I use the 5P framework common in psychotherapy case conceptualisation. And yes, this is problem-type agnostic.)

We now know what we are solving.

We move on to generating ideas. Design Thinking techniques come in very useful here as we can follow the process without having to wait around for inspiration to strike.

Once we have a pile of ideas, we choose the most likely one and plan the implementation.

Read on to the next part

We can continue the visualisation of the resolution and implementation process, as digging our way back up through the layers of the problem. Continue reading the related post Problem Peeling.