Working on complex challenges in unpredictable environments requires a good dose of intentionality and practicality. We’ve found that ambitious goals – like those of our partners, peers and our own – are best balanced with a clear understanding of what we’re facing and an eye towards what accomplishments are feasible within our constraints. One way to hit this balance of ambition and practicality is by starting with the basics: understanding and defining the problem.
Why problem definition?
If we don’t invest significant energy in defining the specific, actionable problem on which we want to focus, we end up operating on assumptions. Working from these assumptions is at best, irresponsible, and at worst, dangerous. It may mean that we waste time and scarce financial resources on something that doesn’t address the underlying problem. It could also end up putting individuals and communities at risk.
Defining a problem may sound like a simple task, but we’ve found that it often requires more time and thought than initially expected. Through our support work, like our Matchbox partnerships, we’ve experienced a range of roadblocks to defining problems that we seek to address. A few common ones we’ve seen are:
- Mixing up the solution and the problem. Often, it can be tempting to start from organisational strengths or mission and work backwards from there. Following this logic ends up with groups identifying a problem that fits their strengths, but may not actually be a real, significant challenge. Similarly, it’s common to begin solution-creating with an idea of what the solution “should” look like, without reflecting on whether this actually responds to a central problem. When we work with our partners, one set of questions we like to ask to avoid running into issue like these is a direct ask of, ‘What is the core social or political problem you seek to address? Why that problem?’
- Glossing over complexities. In some cases, we may have a sense of the problem we want to tackle, but not know enough details to clearly articulate it. In these cases, it’s critical to dedicate time to better understanding the problem. Desk research and interviews can be key, as is a willingness to further explore any unexpected findings.
- Leaving the problem broad and vague. Since so many of the problems we tackle in the social sector are deeply interconnected, it can be enticing to generalise the problem in order to tackle it. This, however, can lead to poorly designed approaches that may not even get off the ground. We find it’s important to break the problem down into discrete, actionable parts, which can show us where an intervention is most likely to stick. Focusing on specifics also makes for clearer plans and priorities to move projects forward.
Diving into defining a problem – carefully and with complexity and specificity in mind – can feel overwhelming, but it’s critical to the work we do. If we don’t accurately grasp effects, impacts, involved actors and the complex interconnectedness of the issues we work on, we will most likely create an intervention that does nothing at best (and considerable harm at worst).
Questions to ask yourself when defining your problem
We have found that there are concrete ways to avoid or navigate around these roadblocks. One of the most important things we do is ask ourselves a lot of questions. Some that we frequently ask when beginning to define a problem are:
- What is the core social or political problem that you see? Is this really the central problem that if it were resolved, the effects would go away?
- Why is it important to address this problem? What will be different if this problem ceases to exist? What harmful effects does this problem cause?
- How do we know that this problem causes the identified harmful effects? What information do we have that led us to this conclusion? What other issues could possibly lead to these effects?
- Is this a known issue? Who is benefitting from the existence of the problem? Who knows about it? Who experiences it directly? What’s the magnitude and location of problem?
- Who or what is causing the problem? How is this happening? Who could intentionally, or unintentionally, be perpetuating issues leading to this problem? What in their reality supports or justifies the continued existence of this problem?
- Who is working on addressing it? What are they doing? Where have they made progress, where have they not? Why is this still a problem?
Many times the first problem we identify is not, in fact, the core issue. Problem definition is so often one of the most difficult, but critical, steps we take with partners, and it’s rarely linear. When it’s done carefully, it requires re-visiting earlier ideas, revising them and refining them.
In this work, we remind ourselves and our partners not to feel overwhelmed by complexity. Each of us is one actor of many, with resources and capacities that can only address a part of the problem. Our objective is to understand the big picture so that our intervention can be as impactful as possible, given our context.
This year, we’ve increased the focus of our Matchbox partner selection process on identifying problems and their causes and effects. We hope that this post is helpful for those of you who are applying to Matchbox partnership, in addition to being useful for a broader community of practitioners. If you have questions about your Matchbox application, feel free to get in touch with Anca (Latin America and the Caribbean) at firstname.lastname@example.org and Nonso (Sub-Saharan Africa) at email@example.com.