How using ‘problem space’ will impact how successfully you solve problems.

I have found that approaching a problem situation with the attitude of 'problem space,' rather than solving 'the problem,' opens up opportunities. It allows me to be more creative and solve the real problem rather than address a symptom.

In problem-solving, the first thing we usually do is to define the problem. The famous statement - "A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved" (John Dewey) is true, but the attitude to understanding the problem is possibly even more critical. It affects how the situation is understood and how the problem is eventually defined and solved. It is about approaching a problem with an open mind - a space of possibilities.

I am asking you to consider shifting your attitude from 'problem,' as a rigidly defined 'thing,' to 'problem space.' The difference is subtle but has massive consequences.

The best way to illustrate the point is to tell you an experience I had in the late 1980s.

I was a recently qualified architect and had won a design competition to build a health clinic in a remote part of São Miguel island (Azores), 2.30 hours from the capital. The clinic had to service a rural community of about 2.5 thousand people. The road system consisted of narrow winding roads on cliff edges. The main reason to build the clinic, I found out later, was because:

  • There were no doctors or nurses in the region
  • There were no healthcare facilities
  • The nearest health care facility was the main hospital, 2.30 hours away
  • Most of the population did not own a car and relied on a bus servicing the area three times a week
  • There was a high infant mortality rate
  • Adults were dying of conditions that could be prevented if treated promptly

After being awarded the job, I decided to do due diligence and get a solid understanding of the problem, and check if the brief addressed the issues the committee had identified. The first thing that struck me was the remoteness and poor road infrastructure. The problem that made me stop in my tracks was discovering that no doctor or nurse was willing or prepared to live in remote areas.

I realized Illness is universal, access to healthcare is not. That was the problem. Designing a clinic with no staff was not the solution, yet no one should die because they live too far from a doctor. There had to be a solution.

In my investigations, I discovered that many more villages and regions faced the same dilemma.

Illness is universal, access to healthcare is not.

I had a choice to build a beautiful building, collect my fees, and return to mainland Portugal. Morally, I knew that I was not solving the problem by doing that. However, I was adamant about finding a solution that could deliver primary health care to the people who lived remotely.

people meeting in room

After a few months of discussions with politicians, social workers, local inhabitants, teachers, and even the European Union representative (the funder of the project) – a solution started to emerge. We developed a model: micro clinic network, train, equip, and fund. The solution hinged on creating a healthcare academy based in the main hospital in the Capital. The academy trained the health care workers from the various communities, provided support on matters outside of their skill levels by phone, and continuous education.

The solution was the result of collaboration, and all stakeholders were involved. Everyone became invested in the solution, and the barriers seemed to evaporate.

It was an exciting process. I could tell you all about the recruiting and training process and how to facilitate large-scale meetings, but that is a story for another post.

Problem Space

Let me get back to the objective of this post – 'problem space.'

Understanding the actual problem was key to the success of this project.

'Problem space' is about awareness, attitude, and recognizing that the real world is a highly connected network. Nothing exists in isolation. Once you 'get' these following points - everything will fall into place.

The basic principles behind problem space are:

  • Reality is systemic
  • Professional knowledge silos
  • Cognitive biases
  • Boundaries
  • Narrative
  • Visual mapping
history track file

Reality is Systemic

We often forget this fact. Reminding ourselves that we live in a world of interconnected and interdependent systems is vital. Nothing is isolated. Any problem you look at is tightly interlinked. We should never talk about 'an educational problem' or a health problem' for instance – all issues have many layers and connections to our lives and society. That is why understanding the situation can be complex. In my case above – building a building would have been addressing the problem as a building problem. The solution, in the end, did involve the construction of micro buildings spread across the island to reach all the rural population, but understanding the problem involved me looking at the sociological and cultural issues, and resources available on the island as a whole.

Professional Knowledge Silos

We live in a fragmented world. Knowledge has become highly specialized, creating what we refer to as the silo effect. Placing this in the context of a system, we have the first major big 'oops.' Reality is interconnected, and there are ripple effects on many aspects of the system. Professional knowledge being so highly specialized is problematic; even if we have a team, there is still a danger that individuals will not know how to talk to each other or understand what others are saying.

Looking at the diagram, observe the amount of 'space' not occupied by a silo. All that space gets ignored or missed because no silo is looking at it. Yet, that space is part of the problem space and represents issues that no one is looking at due to specialization and professional boundaries created by their silo and biases.

This outcome is what happens when problems are not adequately solved - only the symptoms addressed. Because of the systemic nature of reality, these overlooked aspects of the problem will eventually open up a 'Pandora's Box,' revealing more problems - and so we get a negative cycle and cascades of future issues.

blindfold- biases

Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases are flaws in our reasoning. We misinterpret what we see around us and end up with poor, if not dangerous, conclusions.

As humans, we are constantly developing these biases - shortcuts and ranking systems that cut down on the time it takes to process information. The situation starts to become dangerous when we become self-referential. We only look at and adapt to the shrinking world we occupy inside our silo. The silo becomes our point of reference.

Before we know it, our ability to make decisions is affected; what we see, what we understand, and how we process information becomes highly distorted—the reason why many teams have problems working together from different professional backgrounds.

Problem definitions space boundaries


The process of defining a problem involves deciding where the boundary will be. We cannot solve everything in one go. We have to determine a reasonable chunk to tackle to address the main problem without creating problems elsewhere.

Establishing the boundary is about drawing a line, and defining what is in and out of the problem. Boundaries do not have to be solid and rigid; they can be porous and flexible and can evolve from one state to another. 

The capacity to hold a dynamic openness is critical in problem definition. At all stages, we need to realize that new information can appear out of the blue that could change everything - the boundary can change – we need to remain open-minded and check our biases. Our duty of care is to deliver the best solution to all concerned – if changes need to occur, we do it with permission from the stakeholders.

visual tools


People are narrative creatures. Communicating through stories unites and bridges the gap between the silos. Stories activate our empathy and our ability to understand and see the bigger picture. We can see the system and the importance of each element in the system. The story becomes the glue that holds the problem space together.

Storytelling Course

Visual Mapping 

There are many good reasons why visual thinking is robust, including how it mimics the way we think. In problem-solving, using visual mapping techniques helps us understand the systemic nature of problems and understand where the boundaries should be.

Our brains are remarkable things, but there are limitations – we reach cognitive loads very quickly, which impacts how we can process information and make connections in complex situations. 

With visual mapping, we can deal with a vast number of elements simultaneously, and most importantly, identify where the real problems are. Complex issues are easy to understand, see the connections and interdependencies, and identify the knowledge gaps and missing information.

Another fundamental point that makes visual mapping extremely powerful for problem-solving is that everyone involved has access to the same data. Everyone is 'on the same page' – problems of misunderstanding disappear.

The act of solving problems

Sensemaking is the process of weaving together fragmented pieces of information.
We live in an age where we easily fall into the trap of only seeing, hearing, and reading what we already think and know. We forget about and overlook the fragmented nature of how we see the world.

We all live in silos of some shape or form. The silos we inhabit feeds us and keeps us in 'group thinking' mode. This narrowing of our awareness is dangerous because it starts to distort our understanding of reality. We become more and more tribal. We lose our ability to see the bigger reality of the outside world. Our ability to solve problems is compromised.

Jonathan Haidt says we have a moral duty to respect and listen to those outside our tribe. Jonathan fears that the silo effect can dampen our moral intuition and emotional intelligence. To maintain a healthy, robust, functioning society, we need to respect and seek the differences between us; that is how we cooperate - we need to 'care.' Professional conduct is, after all, about the duty of care.

Our primary focus must be to solve the correct problem. By approaching each situation as a 'problem space,' we will see and explore many opportunities, avoid essential issues falling through the cracks, and avoid toxic problems to emerge in the future. We will become high-performing individuals.