Problem Finding

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—Discovering the real problem

Learn what is true to discover the real problem.


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What’s bothering you? What’s the problem? What do you want? How significant is this? What’s the real problem? What is at stake? What’s the problem really? Whose problem is this?

This course can help you discover the real problem that is motivating action while lurking behind your early conceptions and inclinations of what to do. This course can help identify what is at stake, what is motivating action, what is most important, and how you may be able to identify and solve the real problem.

Problem finding is the essential prerequisite to problem solving.


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Completion status: this resource is considered to be complete.
Attribution: User lbeaumont created this resource and is actively using it. Please coordinate future development with this user if possible.

The objectives of this course are to help students:

  • notice real problems,
  • identify problems that can be safely ignored and those that require action,
  • align perceived risk with actual risk,
  • align perceived opportunities with real opportunities,
  • understand the various causes of problems,
  • notice when change is needed,
  • persist in discovering what is at stake,
  • identify the real problem.

There are no prerequisites to this course and all students are welcome. Students may benefit from completing the Clear Thinking curriculum, the Attributing Blame course, and the Thinking Tools course before beginning this course.

Although this course is named problem finding, and the word problem is used throughout the course, the techniques presented here are equally applicable to seizing opportunities.

The Phoenix Checklist captures many problem finding concepts in a compact form. It may be a useful reference for students.

The Problem Framing Canvas, developed by the Griffith Centre for Systems Innovation provides an alternative guide that may be a useful supplement to students.

This is a course in the possibilities curriculum, currently being developed as part of the Applied Wisdom Curriculum.

The course contains many hyperlinks to further information. Use your judgment and these link following guidelines to decide when to follow a link, and when to skip over it.

If you wish to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email or leave a comment or question on the discussion page.

What Problem?

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Life consists primarily of solving problems; they are a normal part of life. Learn to expect them and enjoy solving them. Often “a problem is nothing more than an opportunity in work clothes.”[1] Life would be boring if there were no problems to solve. Treat them as expected rather than as anomalies.[2]

Research shows that problem finding is distinct from problem solving. Problem finding represents a family of related skills including problem identification, problem definition, problem expression, and problem construction.[3]

When we first state a problem it is rarely the real problem. It is more likely to be a symptom, solution statement, subproblem, distraction, euphemism, or a premature conclusion based on misinformation. When we discover the real problem that real problem addresses what is at stake, it is based on reality, it is often found deep in the causal chain, it has broad scope, and it is both important and actionable.

A problem is a gap between a person’s perception and desire.[4] Expressed more directly, when facing problems, we can ask:[5]

  • What do you want?
  • What is true? and
  • What are you going to do about it?

We often neglect to ask, or incorrectly answer these deceptively simple questions.

The first question, “what do you want?” exposes, challenges, and explores our goals. The second question, “what is true?” examines our perceptions, beliefs, opinions, our grasp on reality, and our willingness to face facts and embrace reality. The third question “what are you going to do about it?” engages our creativity, tests our agency, expands our understanding of contributing causes, and examines our priorities.

When consequential outcomes are at stake it is useful to carefully reexamine and reassess our answers to each of these questions.

Getting it Right

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We begin by examining a true example where the real problem was accurately discovered.

Nuclear False Alarm Incident

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Soviet officer Stanislav Petrov is often credited with preventing a full-scale nuclear war because he correctly analyzed a false alarm and identified the real problem. This is a very fortunate example of discovering the real problem.

On 26 September 1983, the nuclear early-warning system of the Soviet Union reported the launch of multiple USAF Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles from bases in the United States. These missile attack warnings were suspected of being false alarms by Stanislav Petrov, an officer of the Soviet Air Defense Forces. This decision is seen as having prevented a retaliatory nuclear attack against the United States and its NATO allies, which would have resulted in an immediate and irrevocable escalation to a full-scale nuclear war. Investigation of the satellite warning system later determined that the system had indeed malfunctioned.


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  1. Study the 1983 Soviet nuclear false alarm incident.
  2. What did Stanislav Petrov want?
    1. What else did he want?
    2. What did his colleagues want?
    3. What did his commanding officers want?
  3. What did the people of the world want?
  4. What information indicated an imminent attack was underway?
    1. What was the apparent problem?
      1. What appeared to be true?
    2. What was true?
    3. What else was true?
  5. What allowed Stanislav Petrov to correctly analyze the situation?
  6. What problem did he identify?
  7. What conditions contributed to his discovering the real problem?
  8. What was the benefit of discovering the real problem?
  9. Scan this list of nuclear close calls. Choose one to study for this assignment.
    1. What was the problem?
      1. What did the various participants want?
      2. What was true?
        1. What else was true?
      3. What was done about it?
    2. What was the real problem?
    3. How was the real problem discovered?
    4. How was an unintended nuclear detonation avoided?
    5. What are the real risks?
    6. What are the perceived risks?

Wise Goals

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The question “What do you want?” reveals our goals, or at least our desires, motivations, impulses, or passions. Real problems address wise goals. A problem is only as important as the goals it entails. Real problems pertain to what matters.

Focus on What Matters

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Important goals pertain to what matters most. Often our initial call to action may be vague, impulsive, unwise, or misdirected. The following assignment can help us refine our goals.


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  1. Complete the Wikiversity course on What Matters.
  2. Focus on What Matters.
  3. Choose a problem to work on for this assignment from this list of example problem topics, or from any other source.
  4. In addressing that problem ask, “What do you want?” or “What do you want to have happen?”
  5. Does your answer reflect a wise goal? Why or why not?
  6. Determine what you really want.
    1. Reflect on this set of questions exploring the question "What do you really want?".
    2. What do you really want?
    3. Is that a wise goal?


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We are often motivated by powerful emotions. Positive emotions, such as love, joy, compassion, and even hope, often lead us in positive directions. Other emotions can be destructive. These include hate, anger, jealously, revenge, fear, arrogance, and even shame or humiliation. If you are motivated by passion, it is important to reflect on your motives and choose a constructive course of action.

Whenever you are motivated by passion complete the following assignment to determine constructive actions you can take.


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  1. Study the Wikiversity course on Emotional Competency.
  2. Identify the emotion that is animating your passion.
  3. If you are motivated by joy, love, compassion, or hope, then proceed with confidence.
  4. If you are motivated by anger, then complete the Wikiversity course on Resolving anger.
  5. If you are motivated by hate, then complete the Wikiversity course on Overcoming Hate.
  6. If you are motivated by revenge, then complete the Wikiversity course on Forgiving.
  7. If you are motivated by fear, then complete the Wikiversity course on Finding Courage.
  8. If you are motivated by guilt or shame, then complete the Wikiversity course on Apologizing.
  9. Complete the Wikiversity course on Appraising Emotional Responses.
  10. Choose a constructive response.
  11. Proceed with caution.

Reference Models

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We are often inspired, urged, or directed to set goals based on comparison with someone, or something, a forecast, standard, or the performance of some other organization. The basis of such comparisons are reference models of some form. These reference models may be peers, benchmarks, analogies, standards, simulations or other mathematical models, computer models, competitors, or simply aspirations of you or an influential other.

When reference models are in play, goals are often chosen to close a gap perceived between current performance and performance suggested by the reference model. For example, you may have goal to seek a salary increase to match or exceed your estimate of a colleague’s salary. You may desire to improve your sports performance to run faster, swim farther, jump longer, or climb higher than some peer, record, or champion you choose for comparison. A goal may be chosen to “increase sales by 10%” because that’s what the competition does, or that is the growth target set by upper management, or that is what is expected of a sales team of your caliber.

We often want to become smarter, richer, braver, bolder, thinner, fitter, healthier, cooler, sexier, tougher, or funnier. Pause to ask “-er than what?” Carefully choose your basis for comparison.

The choice of reference standard can easily become the basis for defining the problem.[6] Choose carefully. In the case of comparisons, problem finding is eventually reduced to the problem of understanding the models used to define differences.[7] When discrepancies arise between a model and the environment, a choice can be made to modify the model rather than to change the environments. In fact, a scientist might even go so far as to suggest that, until one has a reliable model of the environment, it is not only foolish but perhaps even dangerous to act when the effects cannot be predicted.[8]


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Whenever choosing goals based on a comparison with some standard or reference model, take to time to rethink the basis for the comparison.

Work through the reassessing comparisons checklist.

What is at stake?

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The originally stated problem is rarely the real problem that is most important to solve. The originally stated problem is likely to be a symptom of a larger or more important problem, a solution statement, or address only portion of a larger problem. The originally stated problem may be based on misinformation, misunderstanding, or illusions. It may be posed as a distraction from other more important problems, or some euphemism chosen to avoid discussing or revealing some more sensitive problem or taboo.

The search for the real problem investigates what really is at stake, often explores deep into the causal chain, and encompasses a broad scope.

It is helpful to discover what is at stake so actions can be taken to address the most significant underlying fears and concerns. To discover the real problem, find out what is at risk, what might be lost, what is significant, and why that is important.

Consider the problem originally stated as “I need to get a tattoo.”

What might be at stake here? Could it be: autonomy, prestige, acceptance, fitting in, courage, affiliation, branding, aesthetics, worthiness, boredom, hopelessness, powerlessness, adventure, attention, rebellion, self-expression, or ego?

It is likely the real problem is self-worth, self-confidence, or loneliness.

Moral Reasoning

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Actions are often described as being morally necessary. Morally justified actions might be truly benevolent—motivated by good-will. Beware of actions that are actually:

  • self-righteous—based on a presumption of moral superiority,
  • bigoted—prejudiced against outsiders,
  • intolerant—unwilling to accept views, beliefs, or behaviors that differ from yours,

These are destructive, divisive, and harmful, regardless of the moral claims made for them.


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  1. Identify some action that is claimed to be morally justified.
  2. Examine the motives animating this problem. If the problem is claimed to be morally motivated or morally justified, then carefully examine this premise.
    1. Complete the Wikiversity course on Moral Reasoning.
    2. Write down the basis of your own moral reasoning.
    3. Judge the proposed actions based on your best moral reasoning.
  3. Proceed only with actions having truly benevolent motives.


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  1. Choose one of the following events to study for this assignment:
    • The Inquisition—efforts by the Catholic Church to combat heresy, especially including the Medieval Inquisition.
    • The Rwandan genocide—The mass slaughter of Tutsi, Twa and moderate Hutu people in 1994 Rwanda.
    • The Trail of Tears—a series of forced relocations of approximately 60,000 Native Americans within the United States.
    • Other genocides—The systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group,
    • Activities of the Ku Klux Klan—an American white supremacist hate group, whose primary target is African Americans.,
    • Lynching—premeditated extrajudicial killing by a group,
    • The War on Drugs—an ongoing campaign, led by the U.S. federal government, of drug prohibition, military aid, and military intervention, intended to reduce the illegal drug trade in the United States,
    • The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—legislation that gave U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.
    • Jonestown—where 909 individuals died from apparent cyanide poisoning in an event termed "revolutionary suicide" by cult leader Jim Jones.
    • The Burr-Hamilton duel resulted in the death of Alexander Hamilton.
    • The Hatfied-McCoy feud resulted in more than a dozen killed from both sides.
  2. Identify the goal addressed by the event you chose.
  3. Is that a wise goal? Explain.
  4. Choose a problem of your own to work on. Choose from this list of example problem topics, or from any other source.
  5. Considering the chosen topic, ask “What do I want?” or “What do I want to have happen?”
  6. What goals are addressed?
  7. Are they wise goals?
  8. Reassess these goals by completing the What do you really want? checklist.
  9. What do you really want?

What is True?

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The question “What is true?” establishes the environment, possibilities, and constraints for planning actions to solve a problem.

Facts matter. Consider these examples where significant harm resulted from inaccurate, incomplete, false, misleading, or fabricated information.

  • The Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal organization that is committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing. As of November 2019, 367 people previously convicted of serious crimes in the United States had been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, 21 of whom had been sentenced to death. These are only some of the wrongful convictions that have occurred in the United States and wrongful executions that have occurred worldwide.
  • During the day-care sex-abuse hysteria, several employees of the Fells Acres Day Care center were charged and convicted of assaulting and raping several children. In one case Gerald Amirault was convicted of assaulting and raping nine children and sentenced to 30 to 40 years in prison. In 1987, at a separate trial, his mother and sister were convicted of similar crimes against four children and sentenced to jail for eight to 20 years. The jury got it wrong; these alleged assaults did not happen.
  • Conspiracy theories, propaganda, pseudoscience, hoaxes, quackery, confidence tricks, and other deceptions distract and mislead many people by obscuring what is true. These are especially harmful when they cause people suffering from illnesses to spend time and money on ineffective treatments rather than seeking effective treatments. Various efforts to cast doubt on the dangers of tobacco smoking contributed to the premature deaths of many smokers.
  • Reality is our common ground. Efforts to obfuscate matters of fact cause divisiveness that often fuels bias, bigotry, hatred, and anger, polarizes groups, and undermines confidence in reliable institutions. Particularly egregious examples are the Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy efforts that altered the careers of many prominent politicians and influenced many voters.

When determining “What is true?” go on to ask:

  • What do we know?
  • What else do we know?
  • How do we know?
  • What are we unsure of?
  • What do we not know?
  • What are our assumptions?
  • How confident are we in these assumptions?

Many of the courses in the clear thinking curriculum can help you discover what is true.


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  1. Complete the Wikiversity course on Facing Facts. Face facts and embrace reality.
  2. Complete the Wikiversity course on Evaluating Evidence. Seek reality, determine what is true, and evaluate evidence carefully.
  3. Complete the Wikiversity course on Seeking True Beliefs. Become more skillful in the quest for knowledge and determine what is true.
  4. Complete the Wikiversity course on Knowing How You Know. Know how you know what is true and why it is true.
  5. Complete the Wikiversity course on Thinking Scientifically. Learn reliable ways of knowing what is true.
  6. Complete the Wikiversity course on Intellectual Honesty. Insist on intellectual honesty from yourself and others.

Many misadventures are caused by a failure to ask and correctly answer the question “What is true?” The next assignment provides important examples and opportunities to practice finding out “What is true?”


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  1. Choose one of the following events to study for this assignment:
    • During George Washington’s last hours,[9] he was treated by four doctors who removed substantial amounts of blood, administered a tonic of molasses, butter and vinegar which nearly choked him to death, applied a painful “Spanish Fly” to his throat, removed another 18 ounces of blood, administered an enema, performed another bloodletting of 32 ounces, and applied blisters of cantharides to his feet, arms and legs. He died shortly after.
    • Bloodletting is the withdrawal of blood from a patient to prevent or cure illness and disease. In most cases, the historical use of bloodletting was harmful to patients
    • Quackery is the promotion of fraudulent or ignorant medical practices.,
    • The decisions leading to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq have faced heavy criticism and resulted in great financial and human costs.
    • A “Red Scare” is the promotion of a widespread fear of a potential rise of communism or anarchism by a society or state. The second red scare, popularly known as McCarthyism, was particularly prominent. During the McCarthy era, hundreds of Americans were accused of being "communists" or "communist sympathizers"; they became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private industry panels, committees, and agencies. Many had their lives disrupted and their careers ruined.
    • Allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse involved reports of physical and sexual abuse of people in the context of occult or Satanic rituals. Allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse have appeared throughout the world. Some of the cases ended in prosecution and imprisonment.
    • The rise and fall of Theranos—a privately held health technology corporation, was initially touted as a breakthrough technology company, but subsequently became infamous for its false claims to have devised blood tests that only needed very small amounts of blood.
    • Ruby Ridge was the site of an 11-day siege near Naples, Idaho, beginning on August 21, 1992, when Randy Weaver, members of his immediate family, and family friend Kevin Harris resisted deputies of the United States Marshals Service and the Hostage Rescue Team of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During a Marshals Service reconnoiter of the Weaver property an initial encounter between six U.S. marshals and the Weavers resulted in a shootout and the deaths of deputy U.S. marshal William Francis Degan, the Weavers' son Samuel, and the Weavers' family dog. In the subsequent siege of the Weaver residence, led by the FBI, Weaver's wife Vicki was killed by FBI sniper fire.
    • The Madoff investment scandal was a major case of stock and securities fraud discovered in late 2008. Prosecutors estimated the size of the fraud to be $64.8 billion, based on the amounts in the accounts of Madoff's 4,800 clients.
    • The Bay of Pigs invasion was a failed attempt by US-sponsored Cuban exiles to reverse Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution, beginning with a military invasion of northern Cuba in 1961. The failed invasion helped to strengthen the position of Castro's leadership, made him a national hero, and entrenched the rocky relationship between the former allies. It also reinforced the relations between Cuba and the Soviet Union. Strengthened Soviet-Cuban relations eventually led to the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The invasion was a significant failure for US foreign policy.
    • MOVE is a black liberation group founded in 1972 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On Monday, May 13, 1985, Philadelphia Police Department Lt. Frank Powell deliberately dropped two one-pound bombs made of FBI-supplied dynamite substitute, targeting a fortified, bunker-like cubicle on the roof of the house where the MOVE lived. The resulting explosions ignited a fire that spread and eventually destroyed approximately sixty-five nearby houses. Despite the earlier drenching of the building by firefighters, officials said they feared that MOVE would shoot at the firefighters, so held them back. Eleven people died in the resulting fire. Ramona Africa, one of the two MOVE survivors from the house, said that police fired at those trying to escape.
    • Vaccine hesitancy, also known as anti-vaccination or anti-vax, is a reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated or to have one's children vaccinated against contagious diseases. It is identified by the World Health Organization as one of the top ten global health threats of 2019.
    • Some problem you are facing or are concerned about.
  2. For the example you have chosen, ask “What is true?” Answer the question.
  3. Go on to ask and answer:
    • What do we know?
    • What else do we know?
    • How do we know?
    • What are we unsure of?
    • What do we not know?
    • What are our assumptions?
  4. Reassess your answers by completing the Reassessing What is True checklist
  5. What opportunities to correctly determine “what is true” were overlooked in the example you are studying?
    • What, if any, investigations were conducted?
    • What errors were made during the relevant investigations?
    • How could those errors have been avoided?
  6. What was the impact of incorrectly or incompletely determining “What is true?”


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Our senses are constantly flooded with a variety of stimuli. Remarkably we can scan the environment to perceive shapes, textures, colors, motion, and objects. We effortlessly notice, orient, perceive, judge, and prioritize all that our senses are exposed to. Our attention quickly filters the important from the unimportant based on salience and relevance. With goals in mind we draw on our experience and expertise to focus on what is significant and ignore what is insignificant. In the best cases, we can foresee the consequences of events and connect these to our goals. However, we can erroneously overlook significant events, while giving undue attention to insignificant events.


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Effective consequences and wise goals combine to create significant action.
  1. Read this essay on significance.
  2. Scan this collection of consequential problem descriptions. Choose several examples to use for this assignment.
  3. Plot each of the selected problems on the significant quandrants grid shown at the right.
  4. What problems are significant? What ones are not?


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Problems rarely disappear until someone takes action to solve them. The third and final question to ask when searching for the real problem is “What are you going to do about it?”.

To answer this question, it is important to:

  • consider the variety of causes that contribute to the problem,
  • plan proportionate action based on useful priorities that avoids overreacting and underreacting,
  • consider the full range of things you can change, and
  • accept those things you cannot change.

Contributing Causes

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Although most outcomes are the result of many causes, we are often drawn to quickly identify a single cause for a problem. That single identified cause may not be a major contributor to the problem and may be a symptom of deeper problems. It is important to develop a moderately complete cause-effect diagram before choosing where and how to act.

As a simple example, consider the problem of arriving late to work. Many contributing causes are listed in this list of effects and their causes examples. These include getting up late, a busy morning routine, unexpected problems in the morning, a long commute, and indifference. Each of these has several contributing causes.

Solution Statements are not Problem Statements

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It is easy to mistake a solution statement or solution suggestion for a problem statement. Consider, for example, the problem of arriving late to work. Perhaps a friend (or your mom) offers the well-intentioned observation “The problem is you stay up too late. You need to get to bed earlier. I keep telling you this. Just get to bed earlier.”

We can recognize that this statement identifies one of many contributing causes. It is not a problem statement and must not be mistaken for a problem statement nor accepted as a problem statement. The real problem has many contributing causes, and it is important to understand most of those causes and carefully choose to address the cause that will have the most beneficial effect.

Start at the beginning; ask “What do I want?”, “What is true?”, and “What am I going to do about it?” to discover the real problem. It can be helpful to place the suggested solution statement in the middle of an emerging cause-effect diagram. Ask “What does this cause?” to discover related effects. Add these to the diagram. Ask “What else causes this effect?” to discover additional contributing causes. Ask “What causes this?” to discover contributing causes. Iterate up, down, and sideways (by asking “what else?”) to construct a reasonably complete cause-effect diagram.

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  1. Study one or more examples from this list of effects and their causes.
  2. Complete the Wikiversity course on Attributing Blame.
  3. Choose one of the following examples to study for this assignment:
  4. Create a cause-effect diagram that identifies the many causes of the problem you chose to study.
  5. Based on that cause-effect diagram, identify the contributing cause that will provide the most effective solution to the problem.
  6. Identify specific actions to take to address the identified cause.
  7. Identify who will take each action identified.

Proportionate Action

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When evaluating problems, the two most common mistakes are to overreact or to underreact. Both overreactions and underreactions are dangerous. Work to discover the real risks and choose proportionate actions. While announcing a further flight delay, the pilot told the frustrated passengers “Remember, it is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground.” Not all risks are equal.


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Discovering real risks requires accurate problem identification.

Overreactions are also known as false alarms, or false positive errors. They occur when the perceived risks exceed the real risks. This is illustrated by the alarmist response in the discovering real risks diagram shown on the right.

Consider this tragic example of the Heaven’s Gate cult.

Heaven's Gate was an American UFO religious cult based near San Diego, California founded in 1974. On March 26, 1997, members of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group in a house in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. The cult members had participated in a mass suicide; specifically, a coordinated series of ritual suicides, in order to reach what they believed was an extraterrestrial spacecraft following Comet Hale–Bopp.

No extraterrestrial spacecraft was actually following the comet Hale-Bopp. There was no real threat; there was no real opportunity.

This is a tragic example of reacting to a false positive; cult members took their own lives because they perceived risks (or opportunities) that did not exist.

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  1. Did any real threat, risk, or opportunity exist?
  2. What, if any, problem was identified by the cult?
  3. How did inaccurate problem identification lead to a real loss?
  4. What was the real problem?


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Underreactions are also known as complacency, or false negative errors. They occur when the real risks exceed the perceived risks. Consider this tragic example of the Ponte Morandi Bridge collapse. This is illustrated by the complacency reaction in the discovering real risks diagram shown above on the right.

Ponte morandi crollato.jpg
A view of the collapsed Ponte Morandi bridge

The Ponte Morandi bridge was constructed in Genoa Italy between 1963 and 1967. It was considered an engineering and architectural landmark since its construction. The span carries four lanes of the A10 motorway over the river Polcevera.

On August 14, 2018 a 210-meter section of the viaduct collapsed during a rainstorm and 43 people died. This led to a yearlong state of emergency in the Liguria region, extensive analysis of the structural failure and widely varying assignment of responsibility.

Several inspections, assessments, restoration work, and recommendations were made since the official opening of the bridge on September 4, 1967. In Genoa, in 2017, a confidential university report noted disparities in the behavior of the stays of pillar 9. A crack in the road had appeared at least 14 days before the collapse, near the south-eastern stay of the subsequently-collapsed pillar 9. The crack may have indicated that the stay had stretched. At no point was there a suggestion to reduce the load on the bridge. Traditionally, bridges were designed only for a 50-year life span; the bridge failed just under 51 years after its opening.

The then-minister of infrastructures and transport Graziano Delrio, who was in charge until 1 June 2018, was informed several times during 2016 in the Italian parliament that the Morandi bridge needed maintenance.

Before the collapse, thousands of cars and trucks travelled across the bridge each day without noticing any structural problem with the bridge. Several reports identified structural concerns but may not have accurately characterized or effectively communicated the risk of a collapse. The minister of infrastructures was informed of the need for maintenance but did not take immediate action.

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Considering the events of the Ponte Morandi bridge collapse, answer these questions:

  1. When was the problem noticed?
  2. Who noticed the problem?
  3. Whose problem was this?
  4. Whose problem is this?
  5. If you were a bridge inspector in 2017, should you have described a problem? Would you have described a problem? What problem statement might you have formulated at that time? How would you have characterized the risk? Who might you have shared it with?
  6. What were the risks of overreacting?
  7. What were the risks of underreacting?
  8. In retrospect, what problem statement might have avoided the tragedy? Could that have been foreseen?
  9. What actions could have avoided the tragedy? Where these actions foreseeable?

For comparison, study the repair work that was performed on the Haversmith Flyover in London.[10]

  1. What problems were noticed with this bridge?
  2. When were the problems noticed?
  3. Identify differences in the identification, analysis, and reporting of problems that resulted in the Haversmith Flyover being repaired, avoiding a collapse, compared with the events of the Ponte Morandi bridge that resulted in a collapse.

The National Bridge Inventory, compiled by the US Federal Highway Administration, includes a structural evaluation of deck, superstructure, substructure, and culvert on a 0-9 scale. This scale ranges from “Excellent Condition”, through “Imminent failure condition”, to “failed condition”. In December 2008, 72,868 bridges in the United States (12.1%) were categorized as "structurally deficient", representing an estimated $48 billion in repairs, and 89,024 (12.2%) were rated "functionally obsolete", representing an estimated $91 billion in replacement costs.

Is there a problem?

  1. If there is a problem, what is the problem?
  2. Whose problem is this?
  3. What actions, if any, can you recommend?
  4. Who can take those actions?

Identifying Problems Accurately

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The discovering real risks diagram shown previously illustrates false alarms, latent risks due to complacency, and accurate problem identification. Problems are accurately identified when the perceived risks correspond to the real risks. Problems are accurately identified when a proportionate response is found that falls between an alarmist reaction and complacency.

Don’t overreact and don’t underreact. Accurately identify the real problem and take proportionate action.

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  1. Scan this list of consequential problem descriptions.
  2. Identify at least three that are false positives, three that are false negatives, and at least one that is an accurate analysis and appraisal of the real problem.

What you can and cannot change

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Understanding what you can change helps you grasp the full extent of your agency—your ability to act. Understanding what you cannot change helps you understand various conditions that constrain your possible actions. Knowing both the expanses of your agency and the boundaries of effective action provide essential information for discovering the real problem.

See beyond illusions to reveal the full extent of the solution space.

The scope of possibilities and several phantom constraints are illustrated in the diagram on the right. Explore the full range of possibilities and ignore what is not possible when working to discover the real problem.


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  1. Complete the Wikiversity course on What you can change and what you cannot.
  2. Engage the full scope of your agency in approaching each problem.
  3. Don’t waste time with those things you cannot change.
  4. What is the real problem?
  5. What are your going to do about it?

Whose Problem is this?

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The world is filled with problems. Many of these problems do not have an owner with a clear duty to solve them. To avoid being overwhelmed, you must decide to engage with some of these and ignore others. These candidate problems may range from simple tasks like deciding who will do the dishes tonight or immense problems such as solving world hunger. How do you decide what problems to take on and what ones to let go?

There are two classes of errors that occur when choosing problems to work on. The first, called interference, is imposing your preferences on others who are fully capable of making their own decisions and solving their own problems. This often involves infringing on the autonomy of other capable people. Examples include imposing your preferences on your grown children, imposing your own taboos on others, and enforcing nuisance regulations made up by a hyperactive homeowner’s association. If you are told, “Mind your own business” or “Stay in your lane” you may be interfering. However, you might be acting responsibly. The other error, called indifference, complacency, apathy, cowardice, or laziness, is avoiding responsibility for problems you are aware of and could solve. Simple examples include shirking responsibilities for household chores, ignoring litter as you walk by, or failing to exercise civic responsibilities. These demonstrate a lack of proactive behavior.

Choose to work on significant problems by asking these questions:

  • Is this problem significant to me in some way?
    • How and why?
  • Can I change something or influence someone to address this problem?
    • What and how?
    • Why am I more effective that others?
    • If not me, who? If not now, when?

Consider your circle of influence—those things you can change, and your circle of concern—those things you have a moral duty to care for.

Plot various opportunities on the significance grid (shown earlier) and choose those problems that are most significant.

The Wikiversity course Doing Good can help broaden your circle of influence and circle of concern by guiding you in helping others.

It may be helpful to study the planning of the Fyre festival to identify examples of unowned problems that continued to get worse. What would you have done if you were part of the planning team?


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  1. Choose several unowned problems to work on for this assignment. These may be problems you are aware of, or several selected from this list of example unowned problems.
  2. Consider your circle of influence and circle of concern for each.
  3. Plot these on the significance grid.
  4. Choose the most significant problem to work on.
  5. Apply the reassessing problem ownership questions to the chosen problem.
  6. Adjust your thinking based on that reassessment.
  7. The Wikiversity course on Transcending Conflict may be helpful if you have chosen to solve a contentious problem.
  8. Solve the chosen problem.

Action Planning

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Study the Implementation section of the Wikiversity Thinking Tools course and follow that guidance to develop an action plan.

Carry out that action plan.

Problem Finding Architecture

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Many forces guide us during problem finding.

The diagram on the right illustrates a general architecture for problem finding. Some students will find this interesting and helpful; you may not. Feel free to skip this section if you are not interested in it.

The bold text in this narrative corresponds to the elements in the diagram. Follow the diagram as you read the narrative. It may be helpful to use a real problem as an example while working through the diagram.

You observe the world by paying attention to various events, investigating some things, ignoring others, and creating and modifying expectations as you accumulate experiences. You interpret your experiences to create a set of perceptions that help you understand what is true.

You naturally have various desires that you discover by reflecting on the question what do you want?

The gap between your perceptions (what you believe to be true) and your desires (what you want) identifies the problem. This gap (and the problem it represents) may be significant to you or it may be trivial.

The desires you feel and choose to express may not be entirely your own creation. Others in your world may impose their ideas and preferences, and provide examples of various standards and models you use as a basis for comparison. These reference models influence your desires and suggest goals. Your own desires may inspire goals, and the goals you describe are often proxies for your most deeply held desires.

Problems have causes. These causes originate and exist somewhere in the world. Understanding these causes helps to inform our choice of solution. The solution to our problem must change the world in some way to modify or eliminate the causes of the problem. The solution is designed to achieve our goals, and those goals provide a basis for assessing the solution. Knowing what you can change and what you can’t change constrains the possible solutions to include only those things we can change. This helps us determine our actions.

We reassess our thinking many times as we work through the many aspects of finding the real problem.


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  1. Choose one of the problem finding examples to use for this assignment.
  2. Study the analysis of the "More Money" problem and the resulting discoveries.
  3. Begin with the stated problem you have chosen to analyze for this assignment.
  4. Follow the “More Money” example and apply those steps to the problem you have chosen to analyze.
  5. Discover the real problem existing behind the originally stated problem.

Summary and Conclusions

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Our world is filled with problems. You can easily find many more problems to seize on than you can possibly solve. It is important to discover the real problem that is lurking beyond your immediate annoyances.

Asking these three questions can help discover the real problem:

  1. What do you want?
  2. What is true? and
  3. What are you going to do about it?

Studying examples of successful problem finding and learning from examples of failed problem finding helps improve our problem finding skills.

Significant problems address wise goals. When we reflect on the question “What do you want?” focus on what matters. Reflect and explore what you really want to ensure you are pursuing wise goals. Avoid being distracted by transient urges and often destructive passions.

Pay attention to what you want and avoid being distracted by what others want you to want. Identify the various reference models you are being compared to and determine for yourself if these standards are relevant and helpful. Reassess the comparisons that are influencing your goals.

Stay true to your well-chosen moral reasoning.

Be especially careful to determine what is true. Reality is our common ground, and reality is vast, dynamic, and complex. Each of us has only a small glimpse of the enormous extent of reality. We are easily misled. Facts matter and be careful to get the facts right to avoid significant harm that can result from inaccurate, incomplete, false, misleading, or fabricated information. Face facts and embrace reality.

Engage with the most significant problems you encounter. Significant problems address a wise goal using effective means. Avoid folly, distractions, and insignificant adventures.

Problems remain unsolved until someone takes effective action. Ask yourself “What are you going to do about it?” and consider your options carefully.

Take care to identify many of the causes contributing to the problem at hand. Create a detailed cause-effect diagram to better understand the full scope of the problem and the many alternatives for approaching a solution.

Take proportionate action. Carefully assess the real risks and determine the true causes. Avoid overreacting and underreacting.

Work to discover those important problems where you can be most effective. Find the wise balance between interference and indifference. Do good.

Chose wise goals, find out what it true, and then act to eliminate the causes of the real problem.


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  1. Create a list of your problems.
  2. For each problem listed, apply the skills learned from studying this course to discover the real problem.
  3. Determine the importance of each problem listed. Identify each problem as high, medium, or low importance. Identify unimportant problems and discard them.
    1. What establishes the significance of each problem? What is at stake? What consequences does it address? What goals does it advance?
  4. What criteria did you use to identify the importance of each problem?
    1. How did you choose those criteria?
  5. Determine the urgency of each problem. Identify each as urgent, short term, midterm, or long-term significance.
  6. Focus on what matters.
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This course draws on several checklists, problem lists, and other resources. Direct links to these resources are collected here for your convenience.

Further Reading

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Students wanting to learn more about problem finding may be interested in reading the following books:

  • Gause, Donald C.; Weinberg, Gerald M. (March 1, 1990). Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is. Dorset House Publishing Company. pp. 176. ISBN 978-0932633163. 
  • Stone Zander, Rosamund; Zander, Benjamin (224). The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. Penguin. pp. 224. ISBN 978-0142001103. 
  • Michalko, Michael (June 8, 2006). Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques. Ten Speed Press. pp. 416. ISBN 978-1580087735. 
  • von Oech, Roger (May 5, 2008). A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative. Grand Central Publishing. pp. 256. ISBN 978-0446404662. 
  • Van der Stigchel, Stefan (March 12, 2019). How Attention Works: Finding Your Way in a World Full of Distraction. The MIT Press. pp. 152. ISBN 978-0262039260. 
  • Rogers, Brian (December 26, 2017). Perception: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. pp. 144. ISBN 978-0198791003. 

I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.

  • On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, by William B. Irvine
  • Problem Finding, Problem Solving, and Creativity (Creativity Research), by Mark A. Runco
  • The Psychology of Problem Solving, by Janet E. Davidson (Editor), Robert J. Sternberg PhD (Editor)


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  1. Michalko, Michael (June 8, 2006). Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques. Ten Speed Press. pp. 416. ISBN 978-1580087735.  Page 22.
  2. Sam Harris, The Waking Up Course, Solving Problems lesson.
  3. Mark A. Runco & Jill Nemiro (1994) Problem finding, creativity, and giftedness, Roeper Review, 16:4, 235-241, DOI: 10.1080/02783199409553588
  4. Gause, Donald C.; Weinberg, Gerald M. (March 1, 1990). Are Your Lights On?: How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is. Dorset House Publishing Company. pp. 176. ISBN 978-0932633163. 
  5. Dalio, Ray (September 19, 2017). Principles: Life and Work. Simon & Schuster. pp. 592. ISBN 978-1501124020. 
  6. The Process of Problem Finding, William R. Pounds, Page 10
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid
  9. Dec. 14, 1799: The excruciating final hours of President George Washington, PBS News Hour, December 14, 2014, See:
  10. The Nova Series episode “Why Bridges Collapse” is helpful in completing this assignment.