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Tips on Problem Analysis PDF Print E-mail


Rey O. Macalindong
© copyright 2009

If you intend to use any portion of this article in your training program, permission can be granted by writing the author.



One of the critical tasks on planning and/or project development is the dentification and analysis of problems. Problems or problem statements will dictate and/or influence the type and design of the project strategies. When the problem statements are wrong or inaccurate, it will likely lead to inappropriate interventions. It is, therefore, important to state them clearly, accurately and objectively.

The following are some useful tips to use in doing problem analysis.


1.0 Be sure you have complete data

The major difficulty in doing a problem analysis is the scarcity of data and/or information that will further describe the phenomena.

There are two major sources of data and information:

(a) secondary sources. These are documents (research papers and/or evaluation reports) that provide an authoritative description of the situation being assessed. Authoritative means the office or unit that provides the data and information is mandated to objectively verify the data and information.

(b) primary sources. A primary source provides first hand information about a problem or phenomena. Data and information should be triangulated in order to get an unbiased and accurate description of the situation. Triangulation is getting data and information from different sources in order to understand a phenomena from a holistic view. Data and information are gathered through interviews, focus group discussion, inspection and observations.

Remember this: Objectively verifiable. Your data and information should be verifiable. Otherwise, it will be difficult to convince people about the accuracy of your analysis.


2.0 Watch out for vague statements

Vague problem statements does not provide any information about the situation. These are broad and loose description of a situation and often add to the confusion about what is the problem. It offers no specific information on how the problems will be solved or addressed.

Examples are:

•   Conduct of training is very loose
•   Poverty (the most commonly quoted problem)
•   Machine is ineffective.

The main objective of any session on problem analysis is to identify and clarify what is the problem all about. Problem statements should be precise and detailed enough to allow project team members to have a common understanding of the situation.

During problem analysis, efforts should be focused towards “chopping” the problem into “manageable bits”.

Vague problem statements above can be improved by:

•   Instead of "conduct of training is very loose", state problem to "3 of the 5 resource persons exceeded their time allotment"
•   Poverty can be described in many ways depending on the situation. This is so huge that its difficult to provide one statement describing it.
•   Instead of "machine is ineffective", state problem to "7 of 10 manuals were printed by the end of the day"; the machine overheated 3 times

Remember this: The best way to eat an elephant is to chop it into pieces. Swallowing the elephant will choke you. The pieces will allow you to chew properly, taste and enjoy your lunch.


3.0 Avoid judgments and/or criticisms

One of the more common pitfalls in analyzing the problems is to pin the blame to a person, unit and especially to management. Statements blaming an individual will actually lead to more problems – relationship problems. Examples are:

•   Incompetent staff
•   Management does not support the program
•   Lackadaisical effort of the Office

The one conducting the situation analysis should be careful to state problems especially when it involves competencies or behavior of an individual. The behavior must be properly described and backed by documented facts (numbers). Problem statements above can be enhance by:

•   Instead of "Incompetent staff", state problem to "9 of the 10 staff members are always late in submitting their reports"
•   Instead of "Management does not support the program", state problem to "only 5% of the total budget allotted for staff development were used for training programs"
•   Instead of "Lackadaisical effort of the Office", state problem to "the Office was able to accomplish 2 out of 10 planned events"

Remember this: It is always easy to point an accusing finger to the person next to us. Or to blame management about what its shortcomings. Wait till someone puts you in their problem analysis. Wait till you become part of management.


4.0 Beware of solutions masquerading as problem statements.

During a situation analysis, planners must be careful about their biases and tendencies to prescribe solutions or interventions in the absence of a clear description of the situation. This practice is often manifested in statements like lack of, inadequate, absence and other similar statements. Examples are:

&bull   lack of training for staff
•   lack of pesticides
•   lack of water pump
•   lack of medical equipment
•   inadequate textbooks
•   absence of guidelines

Statements listed above are not problems but rather preconceived solutions. Such statements also does not offer much information about the features or design of the intervention. The main rationale for undergoing a tedious process of describing and analyzing problems is to generate enough information that will be used in the design of the interventions.

The above problem statements should be stated this way:

•   Instead of "Lack of training for staff", state problem to "high incidence of delayed projects implemented by staff;
•   Instead of "Lack of pesticides", state problem to "the xxx insects are eating the root of the plants"
•   Instead of "Lack of water pump", state problem to "villages have to walk two kilometers to get drinking water"
•   Instead of "Lack of medical equipment", state problem to "traditional birth attendants use bamboo sticks to cut umbilical cord"
•   Instead of "Inadequate textbooks", state problem to "five students share or use one textbooks"
•   Instead of "absence of guidelines", state problem to "current guidelines limit the use of xxx products to....."

Remember this: Around 80% of a plan or proposal describes the project. Twenty percent is devoted to background and/or rationale. Make sure the background/rationale describes the situation – problems, opportunities and threats. Don’t describe the proposed programs and projects in the background/rationale section. Describe the justification using the problem analysis.


5.0 Pinpoint where the problems are

A common observation in problem analysis is the tendency to generalize things. Generalization means formulating a one size - fits all problem analysis which will lead to a one size - fits all intervention. Planners should be mindful of the situation - “situational analysis”. Problems in one area may not have necessarily the same configuration (cause and effect) in other areas. This practice often leads to a templated analysis.

Examples of broad problem statements:

•   Poor performance of schools. Planners need to ask who are the schools? what type of schools? Where are they located?
•   High drop outs. This is a sweeping statement. Where is drop out more prevalent?
•   High incidence of dengue. Where is incidence highest?
•   Traffic. Where or what intersection?

Pinpointing where the problems are will avoid a one-size fits all intervention. Identifying where problems occur will help provide insights on the context, practices and malpractices, skills and behavior of stakeholders. The following examples show how broad statements can be zeroed in to specific areas:

•   Poor performance of schools – schools located in the rural areas garnered a MPS of 30% and below
•   High drop outs – Schools near the commercial district areas are experiencing an average drop outs of 100
•   1st Year High School students per school year
•   High incidence of dengue – There is a 50% increase in cases of dengue in Village A
•   Traffic – Travel time from EDSA Cubao to EDSA Ortigas takes 30 minutes (instead of 5 minutes)

Remember this: Every area, locality, organization or individual is unique. Not all have the same problems and, not all have the same situation. Once you have located where the problems are, start your analysis. Prepare a problem tree.

6.0 Problem analysis should be complemented with other approaches to analyzing a situation

The limitation with problem analysis is it results to "more problems". Using Problem Analysis will provide an understanding of why and how the problems manifest. But the approach may be insufficient in providing a holistic picture or explanation of the situation. Any problem analysis should be complemented by other situational analysis approaches like: appreciative inquiry, opportunity analysis and threats analysis. The aim of any situation analysis is to understand a situation from different perspectives.

As a critical first step in planning, situation analysis should be undertaken using different approaches:

(a) Problem analysis will help explain why a situation is below standard; will help identify the areas for remediation
(b) Appreciative inquiry will show the good or positive practices of target groups that may be useful inputs to the design of the interventions
(c) Opportunity analysis will provide the strategic directions; it will help explain the context by which strengths and weaknesses should be analyzed
(d) Threat analysis will provide information on potential problems and pitfalls to avoid; threats also provide directions on areas for improvement and areas for remediation

The tool that you will use in analyzing a situation will influence the results of your analysis. It is important to know the right tool for the right situation.

Remember this: When pinning a nail, use a hammer. When drilling a screw, you can still use the hammer or a plier but it will take longer, not safe and will give you poor workmanship. When drilling a screw, simply use the screw driver.