Welcome back to the final part of our problem mapping series! In this last chapter, we’ll deepen our understanding of complex challenges by exploring symptoms and causes. This step really helps with developing solutions. Understanding of what’s actually causing the problem is critical to solving it. Moreover, it helps us get clear on whether our solution is a band aid or a cure. 

Recap of Problem Mapping

In the first two parts of our series, we introduced problem mapping and learned the art of crafting powerful problem statements. Now, we’ll complete our map with an exploration of symptoms and causes.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

In problem mapping, it’s important to understand the distinction between symptoms and causes. Symptoms are like signals indicating that something is amiss. They are the visible manifestations of an underlying problem. Causes on the other hand are like the roots of a tree. They’re hidden beneath the surface, but driving the visible symptoms. By understanding both, we end up with a holistic view of the problem.

Uncovering Interconnections

Complex challenges are rarely isolated; they are often interconnected. Addressing symptoms without considering their underlying causes is like trimming the branches without dealing with the root issue. In design, we aim to understand these interconnections and design comprehensive solutions.

The Domino Effect

In problem mapping, we often encounter a domino effect where one challenge leads to another, creating a chain reaction. For example, low employee morale might lead to decreased productivity, which, in turn, affects the overall performance of the organization. Understanding these ripple effects helps us design interventions that break the chain and create positive outcomes. We can explore those chains by asking why something is the way it is.

Short-Term Pain Relief or Long-Term Impact

As we uncover symptoms and causes, we can design solutions that address the symptoms or the root issues. I think there is a lot of valid criticism of band-aid solutions—especially when the root cause has been ignored—but band-aids stop bleeding, and sometimes that’s what we need short-term. By mapping your symptoms and causes—you can be clear about the role your solution plays in the problem, without suggesting that the band-aid is a long-term cure. 

Collaboration and Co-Creation

In complex problem solving, collaboration is key. As we always say at Overlap: design is a team sport. Bringing together diverse perspectives and expertise can lead to innovative and sustainable solutions. Those perspectives also help us understand the problem differently and with more clarity. Design encourages co-creation, where stakeholders can actively participate in the design process.

Creating a Comprehensive Problem Map

It’s time to create your comprehensive problem map. 

Start by identifying the visible symptoms and then dig deeper to uncover the underlying causes. 

One of our favourite tools for exploring symptoms and causes is called 5 Whys. Basically, you ask why something is the way it is 5 times. Each new layer gets deeper into the problem and explores the root of the issue. After five whys, you’ll end up with an answer much closer to the cause of the problem than you started with. 

Remember, problem mapping is an ongoing journey of exploration and discovery. Having your problem in a visual form makes it easier to share your understanding with others, it brings new people to the problem up to speed faster, and it helps you revisit the problem as you work to solve it.

In design, we embrace the complexity and ambiguity of problems, using them as opportunities for growth and transformation. So, keep exploring, keep innovating, and keep transforming the world around you.

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