What problem are you trying to solve?

Posted on 5 July 2011 in Featured, Making your research accessible by

How many of you have a friend/boss/mother-in-law who jumps in with solutions before really understanding your problem? If so, I’m sure you’ll agree that it is very annoying!

In fact, the temptation to jump in with a solution before we have fully understood what problem we are trying to solve is very common and this tendency seems to be particularly prevalent when it comes to communication strategies. For example, how many times have you heard of an organisation which decides to set up an online portal without really defining what problem they seek to address with it (see this blog for an excellent discussion of this phenomenon)? Unfortunately, solutions designed without understanding the problem are rarely successful. To use the online portal example, organisations often think this will be a good idea since by pushing out more information they will surely have an influence on policy… but if they really analyse the problem they may realise that in fact the policy makers they aim to influence lack the knowledge to understand the research and the information literacy skills to use a portal.

For this reason, my one piece of advice to anyone who is grappling with their communication strategy is to understand the problem you are trying to solve before you start planning solutions! I personally find problem tree analyses very useful in understanding a problem. Using a problem tree you can define exactly what problem you aim to solve and then to track back and look at the factors feed into that problem. Having said that there are many other tools which can be used to analyse problems (outcome mapping, theories of change, force field analysis etc). All of these allow you to examine a problem, and understand factors that influence it.

I recently facilitated a one day workshop for an African Health Research NGO which was aiming to develop its strategy for communication with policy makers. The NGO has a very enthusiastic and well trained team of staff and high level support from their government. However, unfortunately, they had fallen into the usual trap of designing a strategy (including that old favourite- an online portal) without first defining what they wanted to achieve. We therefore spent most of the day trying to define what the problem was that they aimed to tackle and understanding the root causes of this problem. I was delighted that the participants seemed to love using problem trees- one of them even said she was going to use them to deal with arguments with her husband! Once we had analysed the problem, we were able to define strategies which could specifically target the root causes.

For more information on this workshop see here.

Do you have experience of running similar workshops- What worked well? And what didn’t??

Kirsty Newman is Head of Evidence-Informed Policy Making at INASP.