Use a Problem Probe To Go Deeper

Confronted with a perplexing situation, pose questions about your situation. Ask early and often. The “problem probe” offers one technique for groups to understand the full dimensions of a given problem. This method can be especially helpful when the problem has a history of unsuccessful attempts to solve it.

The problem probe offers a structured set of questions to uncover the full dimension of the problem being confronted. To begin the probe, ask each group member to write down what he or she thinks the problem is, using a word, sentence, or even a brief paragraph. Then lead the group through a series of probing questions, usually no more than eight, to draw out the nature of the problem.

Examples of probing questions include:

  1. What happens?
  2. Then what happens?
  3. Where does the problem occur?
  4. When does the problem occur?
  5. How frequently does it occur?
  6. Who is most affected by the problem?
  7. When was the problem first identified as being a significant problem?
  8. Is this problem much like other problems that have occurred in the past? If yes, does there appear to be a pattern operating here?
  9. Where could this problem be occurring but does not? How did things work before we had this problem?[1]

Encourage people as they answer to use “I” statements to convey their point of view and to be as objective as possible when describing the problem. Problem probing allows you to get a better understanding of the full dimensions of the challenge you face. Clarifying the nature of the problem may be a first step toward reaching consensus on a possible solution.

Despite the importance of rolling up our sleeves and getting to work, sometimes it helps to slow the action down by asking questions about the situation. Posing questions can challenge settled understandings, allowing us to uncover hidden problems, dynamics, and potential in our community projects. A problem probe offers one technique for doing so.

[1]Thomas Justice and David W. Jamieson, The Facilitator’s Handbook, New York: HRD Press, 1999, 169-171.

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