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Social Sci LibreTexts

3.2: Problem Solving Approaches and Interventions

There are six problem solving approaches and interventions most commonly used among practitioners. Each approach examines a different aspect of a social problem. The nature of the problem and people involved determines the most appropriate intervention to apply.

A social systems approach examines the social structure surrounding the problem or issue. This approach requires macro, meso, and micro levels of analysis (see pages 12-13) to help understand the structure of the problem and the arrangement of individuals and social groups involved. Analysis requires comprehension of the entire issue and parts associated, as well as, which components and protocols of the structure are independent or dependent of each other. Application of this approach requires grasp of the complete problem including the hierarchy, order, patterns, and boundaries of individuals and social groups including their interactions, relationships, and processes as a body or structure surrounding the issue (Bruhn and Rebach 2007).


The interventions deployed using a social systems approach focus on establishing and maintaining stability for all parties even while change is occurring. Social system interventions require change agents or leaders such as sociological practitioners to help control and guide inputs (what is put in or taken into the problem) and outputs (what is produced, delivered, or supplied resulting from change) used in problem solving (Bruhn and Rebach 2007). This approach requires the involvement of everyone in the social structure to design or re-design the system and processes around the issue.

The human ecology approach examines the “web of life” or the ecosystem of a social problem or issue. This approach is often visually represented by a spider web to demonstrate how lives are interlinked and interdependent. A human ecology approach focuses on macro and meso levels of analysis to develop knowledge about the social bonds, personal needs, and environmental conditions that impede or support life challenges and opportunities for individuals. Practitioners evaluate and analyze where individuals and groups fit in the social structure or ecosystem and their roles. The purpose of this approach is to identify cognitive and emotional boundaries people experience living in social systems to help confront and remove the obstacles they face.


Interventions applied in a human ecological approach target changes in families, institutions, and small communities. The goal is to confront the stressors and strain created by social situations and settings. Interventions from a human ecology approach help people determine acceptable behaviors within different social environments (Bruhn and Rebach 2007). Practitioners work with social groups to remove collaborative challenges between groups in a social ecosystem and the individuals working and living within them. Change is concentrated on developing a new system and process to support and remove obstacles for individuals effected by a social problem.

A life cycle approach examines the developmental stages and experiences of individuals facing issues or various life crises. Meso and micro levels of analysis are required with this method. Data gathered assists practitioners in understanding the adaption of individuals or groups to change, challenges, and demands at each developmental stage of life (Bruhn and Rebach 2007). Analysis incorporates evaluation of interpersonal connections between a person and the environment, life transitions, and patterns. This approach if applicable when working with individuals, groups, and organizations, which all have and go through a life cycle and stages of development.

Interventions using this approach target changes in social norms and expectations of individuals or groups facing difficulties. Practitioners help identify the context and issues creating anxiety among individuals or groups and facilitate coping strategies to attack their issues. This approach builds on positive personal and social resources and networks to mend, retrain, or enable development and growth.


The clinical approach evaluates disease, illness, and distress. Both meso and micro levels of analysis are required for this method. Practitioners assess biological, personal, and environmental connections by surveying the patient or client’s background, and current and recent conditions (Bruhn and Rebach 2007). A Patient Evaluation Grid (PEG) is the most commonly used tool for data collection. This approach requires in-depth interactions with the patient or client to identify themes associated with their condition and the structure of the social system related to their illness and support. When applying this approach in medical practice, the evaluation and analysis leads to a diagnosis.

Intervention in a clinical approach concentrates on removal of symptoms, condition, or changes in the individual to solve the problem. The overarching goal of this method is to prevent the problem from reoccurring and the solution from interfering with the individual’s functioning. Problem management must minimally disrupt the social system of the patient or client.

A social norms approach focuses on peer influences to provide individuals with accurate information and role models to induce change (Bruhn and Rebach 2007). This approach observes macro, meso, and micro levels of analysis. Intervention centers on providing correct perceptions about thinking and behavior to induce change in one’s thoughts and actions. This technique is a proactive prevention model aimed at addressing something from happening or arising.

There are three levels of intervention when applying a social norms approach (Bruhn and Rebach 2007). Practitioners use interventions independently or together for a comprehensive solution. At the universal level of intervention , all members of a population receive the intervention without identifying which individuals are at risk. A selective level of intervention directs assistance or services to an entire group of at risk individuals. When specific individuals are beyond risk and already show signs of the problem, they receive an indicated level of intervention . A comprehensive intervention requires an integration of all three levels.

Practitioners assist communities in problem solving by applying a community based approach . All three levels of analysis (macro, meso, and micro) are required for this method. The aim of this approach is to plan, develop, and implement community based interventions whereby local institutions and residents participate in problem solving and work towards preventing future issues. Practitioners work with communities on three outcomes, individual empowerment, connecting people, and improving social interactions and cooperation (Bruhn and Rebach 2007). Concentrating on these outcomes builds on community assets while tailoring solutions to local political, economic, and social conditions. By building bridges among individuals and groups in the community, practitioners facilitate connections between services, programs, and policies while attacking the problem from multiple vantage points.


A community based approach helps ensure problem analysis, evaluation, and interventions are culturally and geographically appropriate for local residents, groups, and organizations. To operate effectively, this intervention requires practitioners to help facilitate face-to-face interactions among community members and develop a communication pattern for solving community problems. To build an appropriate intervention, practitioners must develop knowledge and understanding about the purpose, structure, and process of each group, organization, and collaboration within the community (Bruhn and Rebach 2007). Upon implementation, a community based approach endows local residents and organizations to observe and monitor their own progress and solutions directly.

Lupton Center

Community Development , Training and Education

12 Common Community Development Approaches

12 Approaches to Neighborhood Development It can be tough to find a list of common community development approaches. At the Lupton Center, we know that’s what budding developers need. A movement of people like you are ready to disrupt chronic inequity for good. This is great news! But it can be daunting knowing where to […]

problem solving approach in community development

12 Approaches to Neighborhood Development

It can be tough to find a list of common community development approaches. At the Lupton Center, we know that’s what budding developers need. A movement of people like you are ready to disrupt chronic inequity for good. This is great news! But it can be daunting knowing where to start your community development journey. What Community Development approach should you take when starting out?

No worries and no pressure! Community developers are always learning from their community, and from each other. We want to help you get started as you think about sustainable development. Here’s 12 common community development approaches we’ve seen here at the Lupton Center. You can see a visual representation of these approaches here.

Of course – every neighborhood is different. Click here to set up a consultation with us and get specific feedback for your context.

Common Elements of Community Development Approaches

Most effective Community Development efforts will share some overarching framework and values.

For it to be true Community Development, the most important part is a …. community! Some organizations opt to create community around an issue. Still, we have found that many effective work happens when it’s place-based. Particularly, focusing on one neighborhood yields the best results.

Neighbors of that community play an active role in leading the development work! This takes time and relationships. And yes, that’s another core element of Community Development. It has to have a long-term orientation.

Finally, these approaches represent starting points. Most Community Development efforts will become more multi-faceted over time. Why? Because most chronic issues are complex and need multi-pronged approaches.

Where to Start: Approaches for Effective Community Development

Even though every community is different, every neighborhood has some core components. The healthier these components are, the more the community will thrive. Here’s some pieces we look at when we use to understand what makes neighborhoods flourish:

Social Fabric

We’ll dive into each of the components that make up each category below! To transform a neighborhood, start by figuring out which category you want to focus on first. Within each category, the smaller components will help you target transformation. Each one can be a great on-ramp for long-term community development work.

Many organizations start their Community Development journey by focusing on relationships. They should! Relationships are the backbone of a neighborhood’s social fabric. Here’s 4 on-ramps to creating a strong social fabric in your neighborhood.

#1 Build a Sense of Place

Sense of Place is when residents have a clear idea of their neighborhood’s identity. Identity could include its boundaries, personality, and history. We have seen organizations take this approach by curating local history into a small museum. Others have interviewed neighbors, created podcasts, custom signs for the neighborhood, and more. For newer organizations, this is a great way to learn about your neighborhood while benefitting it, too.

#2 Develop & Support Credible Leadership

Every neighborhood needs proactive and trusted leaders. These leaders act in the best interests of the neighborhood. Most of the time, these leaders are already around in the neighborhood. You just need to find them. You can get started by creating a local leadership council or civic league for your neighborhood. Identifying leaders and bringing them together is a powerful way to kick-off Community Development. Oftentimes, they will then map out the course for broader efforts.

#3 Foster Neighborhood Connectivity

Neighborhoods thrive when neighbors know and rely on each other. Bonded neighbors feel responsible for each other. They put stock in civic engagement. To start fostering this connectedness, you may start holding community events. Social gatherings like live music nights, pancake breakfasts, or public holiday celebrations are a great way to for neighbors to get to know each other. You’ll also get to hear more about what neighbors want for their community.

#4 Connect with the Faith Community

Religious communities can be a powerful force for neighborhood flourishing. Often, they will provide key social, financial, and spiritual resources for the good of the whole neighborhood. A great way to start your Community Development work is by finding a trusted local faith organization and getting involved with them.

Structural Environment

#5 tackle the physical environment.

Neighbors need safe, well-maintained, and functional environments. Many organizations start by focusing on the physical environment. Our parent organization, FCS, has phenomenal partners who focus on maintaining the local parks in South Atlanta. Other partners focus on making it safe to walk and bike by creating bike paths and lanes. Tackling a piece of the physical environment is a great way to nurture a flourishing neighborhood.

#6 Safety & Security

Some organizations make sure residents experience safety for their physical beings and material possessions. Approach this element by listening closely to neighbors about safety concerns. Community action should always be at the center of any safety initiative. Strategies might include organizing a neighborhood watch or installing lights in troubled areas.

#7 Education

Start a Community Development journey by working with the local education system. These can be schools, after-school programs, clubs, or other. Neighborhood children deserve high-quality education and opportunities for long-term success. One common way of initiating this approach is to start a reading club, mentoring program, or after-school program. Be sure to check what already exists before starting!

#8 Health & Social Services

Neighborhoods need access to services for vulnerable groups. These services should have the resources to secure residents’ health and well-being. They must also be accessible. This is an excellent approach for people with connections to areas like the medical field and government agencies. We’ve seen this type of approach bloom into institutions like community health centers.

You can probably think of a few Community Development organizations who have taken this approach! Housing is the cornerstone of community stability. To maximize equity, housing should be sustainable and mixed-income housing. Choosing to focus on housing could mean looking at local construction or rehabilitation. Or perhaps you might create new ways for low-income residents to secure mortgages. We’ve even seen lawyers get to work clearing up titles as an organization!

#10 Employment

Focusing on employment is another common approach to starting Community Development. These kinds of efforts could start with creating local jobs. Very strategically, building up employment can include equipping residents for those local jobs. Make sure there’s jobs for neighbors to get before diving into a job-training program.

#11 Household Income

The strongest & most equitable neighborhoods are economically diverse. The overall community has disposable income available to support local commerce. One on-ramp to Community Development is figuring out ways to boost wealth in the community. Land trusts, micro-lending, debt relief, etc. are all ways to look at boosting household income.

#12 Local Commerce

Stable local businesses provide products and services every neighborhood needs. Ideally, some of these businesses are owned and operated by community residents. This keeps wealth in the community! Many organizations equip or partner with local entrepreneurs to keep local businesses humming. In Atlanta, we love to partner with an organization called Start:ME as a way of encouraging local commerce.

Getting Started with a Community Development Approach

At this point, we hope you feel jazzed about getting started with one of these approaches. If you’re still struggling to identify where to begin your efforts: one easy way to figure it out is to look for what’s already going well in the neighborhood. Once you notice where the neighborhood is strong, join in when you’re first beginning!

Starting with strengths is the best way set a dignifying trajectory. By starting with strengths, you are rejecting the idea that you can save the neighborhood. Focusing on strengths means you’re centering the neighborhood, not your organization. The neighborhood gets to be the hero of the story.

Ready to talk through how to start or tailor your current Community Development approach? Click here!

Start Small & with Relationship: Grow from There

Wherever you choose to start, community partnership should be at the center. The above approaches will help you know what to listen for when neighbors talk about their dreams for the neighborhood.

Since Community Development , and especially Holistic Neighborhood Flourishing , are place-based and long term: don’t rush. Start small. Over time the efforts will grow more complex, multi-faceted, and effective.

Taking one of these approaches will help you start strategically. They each imply what metrics are going to indicate your success. And if you work together with the neighborhood, you will see success over time. Cheers to you, Change-Maker!

Ready to Join a Coalition of Change-Makers? Click here to subscribe!

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Charity Programming , Toxic Charity

Toxic Charity: A Holistic Overview

In October 2011, a transformative book hit the scene. Bob Lupton had penned Toxic Charity: How the Churches and Charities Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It. The book shined a light on the ways traditional charity models typically failed to alleviate poverty, and how they often harmed people in the name of […]

problem solving approach in community development

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Understanding Community Needs based on Community Perspectives

Understanding community needs based on community perspectives:.

Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)  - Historically, university researchers have used a “needs assessment approach” or a “deficiency model” as their approach to engaging communities around problem solving.  An unintended consequence is that communities (and university researchers) can wind up viewing themselves as having overwhelming problems that can only be solved by outside experts and external resources.  An alternate approach, developed by John L. McKnight and John Kertzmann from the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University, is to develop partnerships, programs and policies based on “the capacities, skills and assets” of the people and their local communities. The ARCHES backbone support organization utilizes this approach to community assessment because:    

Successful community-engaged problem solving only occurs when local people are actively involved and leading the initiatives, committing themselves and their resources to the effort.  

The approach is consistent with the principles of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) whereby community members participate with researches in solving community problems identified by the community – community members themselves are best-equipped to identify and prioritize the issues that are important to them, and to then collaborate to develop sustainable solutions. 

Community development and change must begin from within, building on the resources which the community members already control, while working to acquire those additional resources that are not yet available.  

problem solving approach in community development

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Problem Solving Resources

Case studies, problem solving related topics.

What is Problem Solving?.

Quality Glossary Definition: Problem solving

Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing a solution.

Problem Solving visual

Problem Solving Chart

The Problem-Solving Process

In order to effectively manage and run a successful organization, leadership must guide their employees and develop problem-solving techniques. Finding a suitable solution for issues can be accomplished by following the basic four-step problem-solving process and methodology outlined below.

1. Define the problem

Diagnose the situation so that your focus is on the problem, not just its symptoms. Helpful problem-solving techniques include using flowcharts to identify the expected steps of a process and cause-and-effect diagrams to define and analyze root causes .

The sections below help explain key problem-solving steps. These steps support the involvement of interested parties, the use of factual information, comparison of expectations to reality, and a focus on root causes of a problem. You should begin by:

2. Generate alternative solutions

Postpone the selection of one solution until several problem-solving alternatives have been proposed. Considering multiple alternatives can significantly enhance the value of your ideal solution. Once you have decided on the "what should be" model, this target standard becomes the basis for developing a road map for investigating alternatives. Brainstorming and team problem-solving techniques are both useful tools in this stage of problem solving.

Many alternative solutions to the problem should be generated before final evaluation. A common mistake in problem solving is that alternatives are evaluated as they are proposed, so the first acceptable solution is chosen, even if it’s not the best fit. If we focus on trying to get the results we want, we miss the potential for learning something new that will allow for real improvement in the problem-solving process.

3. Evaluate and select an alternative

Skilled problem solvers use a series of considerations when selecting the best alternative. They consider the extent to which:

4. Implement and follow up on the solution

Leaders may be called upon to direct others to implement the solution, "sell" the solution, or facilitate the implementation with the help of others. Involving others in the implementation is an effective way to gain buy-in and support and minimize resistance to subsequent changes.

Regardless of how the solution is rolled out, feedback channels should be built into the implementation. This allows for continuous monitoring and testing of actual events against expectations. Problem solving, and the techniques used to gain clarity, are most effective if the solution remains in place and is updated to respond to future changes.

You can also search articles , case studies , and publications  for problem solving resources.

Innovative Business Management Using TRIZ

Introduction To 8D Problem Solving: Including Practical Applications and Examples

The Quality Toolbox

Root Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem Solving and Corrective Action

One Good Idea: Some Sage Advice ( Quality Progress ) The person with the problem just wants it to go away quickly, and the problem-solvers also want to resolve it in as little time as possible because they have other responsibilities. Whatever the urgency, effective problem-solvers have the self-discipline to develop a complete description of the problem.

Diagnostic Quality Problem Solving: A Conceptual Framework And Six Strategies  ( Quality Management Journal ) This paper contributes a conceptual framework for the generic process of diagnosis in quality problem solving by identifying its activities and how they are related.

Weathering The Storm ( Quality Progress ) Even in the most contentious circumstances, this approach describes how to sustain customer-supplier relationships during high-stakes problem solving situations to actually enhance customer-supplier relationships.

The Right Questions ( Quality Progress ) All problem solving begins with a problem description. Make the most of problem solving by asking effective questions.

Solving the Problem ( Quality Progress ) Brush up on your problem-solving skills and address the primary issues with these seven methods.

Refreshing Louisville Metro’s Problem-Solving System  ( Journal for Quality and Participation ) Organization-wide transformation can be tricky, especially when it comes to sustaining any progress made over time. In Louisville Metro, a government organization based in Kentucky, many strategies were used to enact and sustain meaningful transformation.


Quality Improvement Associate Certification--CQIA

Certified Quality Improvement Associate Question Bank

Lean Problem-Solving Tools

Problem Solving Using A3

NEW   Root Cause Analysis E-Learning

Quality 101

Making the Connection In this exclusive QP webcast, Jack ReVelle, ASQ Fellow and author, shares how quality tools can be combined to create a powerful problem-solving force.

Adapted from The Executive Guide to Improvement and Change , ASQ Quality Press.

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problem solving approach in community development

What Is Problem-Solving Therapy?

problem solving approach in community development

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

problem solving approach in community development

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight


Things to consider, how to get started.

Problem-solving therapy is a form of therapy that provides patients with tools to identify and solve problems that arise from life stressors, both big and small. Its aim is to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression , among other conditions. It can be administered by a doctor or mental health professional and may be combined with other treatment approaches.

Problem-solving therapy is based on a model that takes into account the importance of real-life problem-solving. In other words, the key to managing the impact of stressful life events is to know how to address issues as they arise. Problem-solving therapy is very practical in its approach and is only concerned with the present, rather than delving into your past.

This form of therapy can take place one-on-one or in a group format and may be offered in person or online via telehealth . Sessions can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours long. 

There are two major components that make up the problem-solving therapy framework:

A positive problem-solving orientation means viewing things in an optimistic light, embracing self-efficacy , and accepting the idea that problems are a normal part of life. Problem-solving skills are behaviors that you can rely on to help you navigate conflict, even during times of stress. This includes skills like:

Problem-solving therapy is all about training you to become adaptive in your life so that you will start to see problems as challenges to be solved instead of insurmountable obstacles. It also means that you will recognize the action that is required to engage in effective problem-solving techniques.

One problem-solving technique, called planful problem-solving, involves following a series of steps to fix issues in a healthy, constructive way:

Other techniques your therapist may go over include:

What Problem-Solving Therapy Can Help With

Problem-solving therapy addresses issues related to life stress and is focused on helping you find solutions to concrete issues. This approach can be applied to problems associated with a variety of psychological and physiological symptoms.

Problem-solving therapy may help address mental health issues, like:

This form of therapy is also helpful for dealing with specific life problems, such as:

Your doctor or mental healthcare professional will be able to advise whether problem-solving therapy could be helpful for your particular issue. In general, if you are struggling with specific, concrete problems that you are having trouble finding solutions for, problem-solving therapy could be helpful for you.

Benefits of Problem-Solving Therapy

The skills learned in problem-solving therapy can be helpful for managing all areas of your life. These can include:

This form of therapy was initially developed to help people combat stress through effective problem-solving, and it was later adapted to specifically address clinical depression. Today, much of the research on problem-solving therapy deals with its effectiveness in treating depression.

Problem-solving therapy has been shown to help depression in: 

Problem-solving therapy also appears to be effective as a brief treatment for depression, offering benefits in as little as six to eight sessions with a therapist or another healthcare professional. This may make it a good option for someone who is unable to commit to a lengthier treatment for depression.

Problem-solving therapy is not a good fit for everyone. It may not be effective at addressing issues that don't have clear solutions, like seeking meaning or purpose in life. Problem-solving therapy is also intended to treat specific problems, not general habits or thought patterns .

In general, it's also important to remember that problem-solving therapy is not a primary treatment for mental disorders. If you are living with the symptoms of a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia , you may need additional treatment with evidence-based approaches for your particular concern.

Problem-solving therapy is best aimed at someone who has a mental or physical issue that is being treated separately, but who also has life issues that go along with that problem that has yet to be addressed.

For example, it could help if you can't clean your house or pay your bills because of your depression, or if a cancer diagnosis is interfering with your quality of life.

Your doctor may be able to recommend therapists in your area who utilize this approach, or they may offer it themselves as part of their practice. You can also search for a problem-solving therapist with help from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society of Clinical Psychology .

If receiving problem-solving therapy from a doctor or mental healthcare professional is not an option for you, you could also consider implementing it as a self-help strategy using a workbook designed to help you learn problem-solving skills on your own.

During your first session, your therapist may spend some time explaining their process and approach. They may ask you to identify the problem you’re currently facing, and they’ll likely discuss your goals for therapy.

Problem-solving therapy may be a short-term intervention that's focused on solving a specific issue in your life. If you need further help with something more pervasive, it can also become a longer-term treatment option.

Pierce D. Problem solving therapy - Use and effectiveness in general practice . Aust Fam Physician . 2012;41(9):676-679.

Cuijpers P, Wit L de, Kleiboer A, Karyotaki E, Ebert DD. Problem-solving therapy for adult depression: An updated meta-analysis . Eur Psychiatry . 2018;48(1):27-37. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.11.006

Nezu AM, Nezu CM, D'Zurilla TJ. Problem-Solving Therapy: A Treatment Manual . New York; 2013. doi:10.1891/9780826109415.0001

Hatcher S, Sharon C, Parag V, Collins N. Problem-solving therapy for people who present to hospital with self-harm: Zelen randomised controlled trial . Br J Psychiatry . 2011;199(4):310-316. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.110.090126

Sorsdahl K, Stein DJ, Corrigall J, et al. The efficacy of a blended motivational interviewing and problem solving therapy intervention to reduce substance use among patients presenting for emergency services in South Africa: A randomized controlled trial . Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy . 2015;10(1):46.

Kirkham JG, Choi N, Seitz DP. Meta-analysis of problem solving therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder in older adults . Int J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2016;31(5):526-535. doi:10.1002/gps.4358

Garand L, Rinaldo DE, Alberth MM, et al. Effects of problem solving therapy on mental health outcomes in family caregivers of persons with a new diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia: A randomized controlled trial . Am J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2014;22(8):771-781. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.07.007

Hopko DR, Armento MEA, Robertson SMC, et al. Brief behavioral activation and problem-solving therapy for depressed breast cancer patients: Randomized trial . J Consult Clin Psychol . 2011;79(6):834-849. doi:10.1037/a0025450

Nieuwsma JA, Trivedi RB, McDuffie J, Kronish I, Benjamin D, Williams JW. Brief psychotherapy for depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis . Int J Psychiatry Med . 2012;43(2):129-151. doi:10.2190/PM.43.2.c

By Arlin Cuncic Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."

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problem solving approach in community development

Business Insights

Harvard Business School Online's Business Insights Blog provides the career insights you need to achieve your goals and gain confidence in your business skills.

What Is Creative Problem-Solving & Why Is It Important?

Business team using creative problem-solving

One of the biggest hindrances to innovation is complacency—it can be more comfortable to do what you know than venture into the unknown. Business leaders can overcome this barrier by mobilizing creative team members and providing space to innovate.

There are several tools you can use to encourage creativity in the workplace. Creative problem-solving is one of them, which facilitates the development of innovative solutions to difficult problems.

Here’s an overview of creative problem-solving and why it’s important in business.

What Is Creative Problem-Solving?

Research is necessary when solving a problem. But there are situations where a problem’s specific cause is difficult to pinpoint. This can occur when there’s not enough time to narrow down the problem’s source or there are differing opinions about its root cause.

In such cases, you can use creative problem-solving , which allows you to explore potential solutions regardless of whether a problem has been defined.

Creative problem-solving is less structured than other innovation processes and encourages exploring open-ended solutions. It also focuses on developing new perspectives and fostering creativity in the workplace . Its benefits include:

Design Thinking and Innovation | Uncover creative solutions to your business problems | Learn more

Creative problem-solving is traditionally based on the following key principles :

1. Balance Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Creative problem-solving uses two primary tools to find solutions: divergence and convergence. Divergence generates ideas in response to a problem, while convergence narrows them down to a shortlist. It balances these two practices and turns ideas into concrete solutions.

2. Reframe Problems as Questions

By framing problems as questions, you shift from focusing on obstacles to solutions. This provides the freedom to brainstorm potential ideas.

3. Defer Judgment of Ideas

When brainstorming, it can be natural to reject or accept ideas right away. Yet, immediate judgments interfere with the idea generation process. Even ideas that seem implausible can turn into outstanding innovations upon further exploration and development.

4. Focus on "Yes, And" Instead of "No, But"

Using negative words like "no" discourages creative thinking. Instead, use positive language to build and maintain an environment that fosters the development of creative and innovative ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving and Design Thinking

Whereas creative problem-solving facilitates developing innovative ideas through a less structured workflow, design thinking takes a far more organized approach.

Design thinking is a human-centered, solutions-based process that fosters the ideation and development of solutions. In the online course Design Thinking and Innovation , Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar leverages a four-phase framework to explain design thinking.

The four stages are:

The four stages of design thinking: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement

Creative problem-solving primarily operates in the ideate phase of design thinking but can be applied to others. This is because design thinking is an iterative process that moves between the stages as ideas are generated and pursued. This is normal and encouraged, as innovation requires exploring multiple ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving Tools

While there are many useful tools in the creative problem-solving process, here are three you should know:

Creating a Problem Story

One way to innovate is by creating a story about a problem to understand how it affects users and what solutions best fit their needs. Here are the steps you need to take to use this tool properly.

1. Identify a UDP

Create a problem story to identify the undesired phenomena (UDP). For example, consider a company that produces printers that overheat. In this case, the UDP is "our printers overheat."

2. Move Forward in Time

To move forward in time, ask: “Why is this a problem?” For example, minor damage could be one result of the machines overheating. In more extreme cases, printers may catch fire. Don't be afraid to create multiple problem stories if you think of more than one UDP.

3. Move Backward in Time

To move backward in time, ask: “What caused this UDP?” If you can't identify the root problem, think about what typically causes the UDP to occur. For the overheating printers, overuse could be a cause.

Following the three-step framework above helps illustrate a clear problem story:

You can extend the problem story in either direction if you think of additional cause-and-effect relationships.

4. Break the Chains

By this point, you’ll have multiple UDP storylines. Take two that are similar and focus on breaking the chains connecting them. This can be accomplished through inversion or neutralization.

Even if creating a problem story doesn't provide a solution, it can offer useful context to users’ problems and additional ideas to be explored. Given that divergence is one of the fundamental practices of creative problem-solving, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into each tool you use.


Brainstorming is a tool that can be highly effective when guided by the iterative qualities of the design thinking process. It involves openly discussing and debating ideas and topics in a group setting. This facilitates idea generation and exploration as different team members consider the same concept from multiple perspectives.

Hosting brainstorming sessions can result in problems, such as groupthink or social loafing. To combat this, leverage a three-step brainstorming method involving divergence and convergence :

Alternate Worlds

The alternate worlds tool is an empathetic approach to creative problem-solving. It encourages you to consider how someone in another world would approach your situation.

For example, if you’re concerned that the printers you produce overheat and catch fire, consider how a different industry would approach the problem. How would an automotive expert solve it? How would a firefighter?

Be creative as you consider and research alternate worlds. The purpose is not to nail down a solution right away but to continue the ideation process through diverging and exploring ideas.

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Continue Developing Your Skills

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, marketer, or business leader, learning the ropes of design thinking can be an effective way to build your skills and foster creativity and innovation in any setting.

If you're ready to develop your design thinking and creative problem-solving skills, explore Design Thinking and Innovation , one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses. If you aren't sure which course is the right fit, download our free course flowchart to determine which best aligns with your goals.

problem solving approach in community development

About the Author

University Human Resources

8-step problem solving process, organizational effectiveness.

121 University Services Building, Suite 50 Iowa City , IA 52242-1911 United States

Step 1: Define the Problem

Step 2: Clarify the Problem

Step 3: Define the Goals

Step 4: Identify Root Cause of the Problem

Step 5: Develop Action Plan

Step 6: Execute Action Plan

Step 7: Evaluate the Results

Step 8: Continuously Improve


Why Groups Struggle to Solve Problems Together

If your meetings are unproductive, this might be the reason.

There are five stages of problem solving: defining the problem, generating solutions, evaluating solutions, picking a solution, and making a plan. When we solve problems on our own, we intuitively move in between these stages to quickly generate solutions. We assume this method will also work in group settings, however, it often fails because each person could be occupying a different problem solving stage at the same time (essentially, no one is on the same page — even though they think they are). To solve problems as a group, we need to jettison the assumption that intuitive problem solving is sufficient, and instead embrace a more methodical approach. In a methodical meeting, for each issue that needs to be discussed, members deliberately and explicitly choose just one problem-solving stage to complete.

problem solving approach in community development

Why are so many meetings so unproductive?

Many professionals, fed up with calendars chock-full of long, disorganized, soul-bruising sessions, resort to uncharitable, even cynical explanations:

But if we want an accurate, rather than merely cathartic answer to the question, we’d be wise to consider Hanlon’s Razor : Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by misunderstanding.

After more than a decade of working with prominent organizations to fix broken meetings, I’ve come to learn that many bad meetings are more adequately explained by a simple, flawed assumption. We assume that intuitive problem solving, a highly effective approach for individuals, will, in the context of meetings, prove just as effective for groups. But often, it does not.

When Individuals Solve Problems Intuitively the Result Is Magic

To understand what intuitive problem solving is, we need to recognize first that when working out any problem, from picking out a necktie to solving a quadratic equation, we make our way through five stages:

problem solving approach in community development

You might assume that we move through these stages sequentially to solve problems. But in the past several decades, psychologists have discovered the opposite to be true. Rather than advance through the stages in order, we tend to do so in a manner that is rather unsystematic .

For example, pretend you’re ordering food online. You begin by quickly generating a solution — Mexican (stage 2) — but as soon as the thought enters your mind, you evaluate (stage 3) and remember that you had Mexican the day before, so you generate another solution (stage 2) — Indian. Upon evaluation (stage 3), however, you fear your hefty Chicken Tikka Masala go-to might outsize your appetite. At this point, you take a step back and define the problem (stage 1), asking yourself “What kind of meal would leave me feeling satisfied but not overly stuffed?” A better question leads to a better answer: sushi (stage 2). You do a quick gut check to make sure sushi is truly what you desire (stage 3), and you move forward with your order (stages 4 and 5).

This is called intuitive problem solving, and it comes so naturally to us that, when we solve problems in this way, we’re wholly unaware that we are doing it. All we have to do is place our attention on the problem and, much like a car’s automatic transmission, our brain shifts gears for us. As a result, intuitive problem solving is remarkably efficient. Magical, even.

When Groups Solve Problems Intuitively the Result Is Often Chaos

Intuitive problem solving is so magical for us as individuals that we assume it should fare just as well for groups. When we hold a meeting, we gather around a table, place our collective attention on the problem, and let our automatic transmissions take over. But, all too often, this turns out to be a mistake.

In order for groups to collaborate effectively and avoid talking past one another, members must simultaneously occupy the same problem-solving stage. But because intuitions are private to their owners, attendees in group meetings are unable to easily discern what problem-solving stage they each are on. Consequently, members unknowingly begin the meeting on different stages.

Imagine a software team who gathers to discuss a disgruntled VIP customer, threatening, quite publicly, to jump ship to a competitor. While one attendee thinks the path forward is obvious and focuses on crafting an implementation plan (stage 5), another is intent on generating alternative solutions (stage 2), while yet another attendee is still trying to figure out whether the exit of this pompous hellion is, in fact, even a problem (stage 1). Perhaps it’s a blessing!

As the meeting progresses, things get even more chaotic. Without realizing it, each attendee continues to switch stages without notifying others. The result is a disorganized meeting that traverses many stages, yet conquers none.

To solve problems as a group, we need to jettison the assumption that intuitive problem solving is sufficient, and instead embrace a more methodical approach — one that homes in on just one problem-solving stage. In other words, we need to stop with the automatic, and start learning to drive stick.

The Power of Methodical Meetings

In a methodical meeting, for each issue that needs to be discussed, members deliberately and explicitly choose just one problem-solving stage to complete.

To convert an intuitive meeting into a methodical one take your meeting agenda, and to the right of each agenda item, write down a problem-solving stage that will help move you closer to a solution, as well as the corresponding measurable outcome for that stage. Then, during that part of the meeting, focus only on achieving that outcome. Once you do, move on.

A Template for Conducting a Methodical Meeting

Pair each agenda item with a problem solving stage and a measurable outcome.

If you don’t know which problem-solving stage to choose, consider the following:

Do you genuinely understand the problem you’re trying to solve? If you can’t clearly articulate the problem to someone else, chances are you don’t understand it as well as you might think. If that’s the case, before you start generating solutions, consider dedicating this part of the meeting to defining the problem (stage 1) and ending it with a succinctly written problem statement.

Do you have an ample list of potential solutions? If the group understands the problem, but hasn’t yet produced a set of potential solutions, that’s the next order of business. Concentrate on generating as many quality options as possible (stage 2). Even if you end your discussion with only a slightly longer list than with which you began, you’ve made important progress.

Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of the various solutions? Suppose you have already generated potential solutions. If so, this time will be best spent letting the group evaluate them (stage 3). Free attendees from the obligation of reaching a final decision—for which they may not yet be ready—and let them focus exclusively on developing a list of pros and cons for the various alternatives.

Has the group already spent time debating various solutions? If the answer is yes, use this part of the meeting to do the often difficult work of choosing (stage 4). Make sure, of course, that the final choice is in writing.

Has a solution already been selected? Then focus on developing an implementation plan (stage 5). If you’re able to leave the conversation with a comprehensive list of actions, assigned owners, and due dates, you can celebrate a remarkably profitable outcome.

Most bad meetings are not caused by lazy, power-tripped leaders, or entitled, self-centered attendees. Instead, they are caused by a simple mistake made by everyone involved. We assume our go-to way for solving problems alone, intuitively, can be effectively deployed to solve problems together. But more often than not, it can’t. Instead, we should hold methodical meetings, discussions that deliberately and explicitly aim to conquer just one stage at a time.

Granted, conquering just one problem-solving stage, I’ve come to learn, sounds a bit underwhelming to some — like taking a small bite out of large woolly mammoth. But those who try methodical meetings are met with an often profound revelation: thoroughly conquering any individual problem-solving stage, even an earlier one, frequently allows you to leap frog ahead, sometimes to the very end of the problem-solving life cycle. As the famously methodical Steve Jobs once noted: “If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.”

problem solving approach in community development

Partner Center

Development challenges and solutions

The challenges.

UNDP’s work, adapted to a range of country contexts, is framed through three broad development settings. These three development challenges often coexist within the same country, requiring tailored solutions that can adequately address specific deficits and barriers. Underpinning all three development challenges is a set of core development needs, including the need to strengthen gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and to ensure the protection of human rights.

Outcome 1: Eradication of poverty in all its forms and dimensions

It's estimated that approximately 700 million people still live on less than US$1.90 per day, a total of 1.3 billion people are multi-dimensionally poor, including a disproportionate number of women and people with disabilities and 80 percent of humanity lives on less than US$10 per day. Increasingly, middle-income countries account for a large part of this trend.

UNDP is looking at both inequalities and poverty in order to leave no one behind, focusing on the dynamics of exiting poverty and of not falling back. This requires addressing interconnected socio-economic, environmental and governance challenges that drive people into poverty or make them vulnerable to falling back into it. The scale and rapid pace of change necessitates decisive and coherent action by many actors at different levels to advance poverty eradication in all forms and dimensions. UNDP works to ensure responses are multisectoral and coherent from global to local.

Outcome 2: Accelerating structural transformations for sustainable development

The disempowering nature of social, economic, and political exclusion results in ineffective, unaccountable, non-transparent institutions and processes that hamper the ability of states to address persistent structural inequalities.

UNDP will support countries as they accelerate structural transformations by addressing inequalities and exclusion, transitioning to zero-carbon development and building more effective governance that can respond to megatrends such as globalization, urbanization and technological and demographic changes.

Outcome 3: Building resilience to crisis and shocks

Some countries are disproportionately affected by shocks and stressors such as climate change, disasters, violent extremism, conflict, economic and financial volatility, epidemics, food insecurity and environmental degradation. Climate-related disasters have increased in number and magnitude, reversing development gains, aggravating fragile situations, and contributing to social upheaval. Conflict, sectarian strife and political instability are on the rise and more than 1.6 billion people live in fragile or conflict-affected settings.

Around 258 million people live outside their countries of origin and 68.5 million are displaced. Disasters and the effects of climate change have displaced more people than ever before – on average 14 million people annually. Major disease outbreaks result in severe economic losses from the effect on livelihoods or decline in household incomes and national GDPs, as demonstrated by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2015.

To return to sustainable development, UNDP is strengthening resilience by supporting governments to take measures to manage risk, prevent, respond and recover more effectively from shocks and crises and address underlying causes in an integrated manner. Such support  builds on foundations of inclusive and accountable governance, together with a strong focus on gender equality, the empowerment of women and girls and meeting the needs of vulnerable groups, to ensure that no one is left behind.

The road to success

To fulfill the aims of the Strategic Plan with the multi-dimensionality and complexity that the 2030 Agenda demands, UNDP is implementing six cross-cutting approaches to development, known as Signature Solutions. A robust, integrated way to put our best work – or 'signature' skillset – into achieving the Sustainable Development Goals .

UNDP’s Signature Solutions are cross-cutting approaches to development— for example, a gender approach or resilience approach can be applied to any area of development, or to any of the SDGs.

Keeping people out of poverty

Today, 700 million people live on less than $1.90 per day and a total of 1.3 billion people are multi-dimensionally poor. People stay in or fall back into poverty because of a range of factors—where they live, their ethnicity, gender, a lack of opportunities, and others.

It’s no coincidence that our first Signature Solution relates directly to the first SDG: to eradicate all forms of poverty, wherever it exists. For UNDP, helping people to get out and stay out of poverty is our primary focus. It features in our work with governments, communities and partners across the 170 countries and territories in which we operate.

UNDP interventions help eradicate poverty, such as by creating decent jobs and livelihoods, providing social safety nets, boosting political participation, and ensuring access to services like water, energy, healthcare, credit, and productive assets. Our Signature Solution on poverty cuts across our work on all the SDGs, whether it’s decent work or peace and justice.

Governance for peaceful, just, and inclusive societies

People’s lives are better when government is efficient and responsive. When people from all social groups are included in decision-making that affects their lives, and when they have equal access to fair institutions that provide services and administer justice, they will have more trust in their government.

The benefits of our work on governance are evident in all the areas covered by the SDGs, whether it’s climate action or gender equality. UNDP’s governance work spans a wide range of institutions, from national parliaments, supreme courts, and national civil services through regional and local administrations, to some of the geographically remotest communities in the world. We work with one out of every three parliaments on the planet, help countries expand spaces for people’s participation, and improve how their institutions work, so that all people can aspire to a sustainable future with prosperity, peace, justice and security.

Crisis prevention and increased resilience

Crises know no borders. More than 1.6 billion people live in fragile and/or conflict-affected settings, including 600 million young people. More people have been uprooted from their homes by war and violence and sought sanctuary elsewhere than at any time since the Second World War. Poverty, population growth, weak governance and rapid urbanization are driving the risks associated with such crises.

UNDP helps reduce these risks by supporting countries and communities to better manage conflicts, prepare for major shocks, recover in their aftermath, and integrate risk management into their development planning and investment decisions. The sooner that people can get back to their homes, jobs, and schools, the sooner they can start thriving again. Resilience building is a transformative process of strengthening the capacity of people, communities, institutions, and countries to prevent, anticipate, absorb, respond to and recover from crises. By implementing this Signature Solution, we focus on capacities to address root causes of conflict, reduce disaster risk, mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts, recover from crisis, and build sustainable peace. This has an impact that not only prevents or mitigates crises, but also has an effect on people’s everyday lives across all SDGs.

Environment: nature-based solutions for development

Healthy ecosystems are at the heart of development, underpinning societal well-being and economic growth. Through nature-based solutions, such as the sustainable management and protection of land, rivers and oceans, we help ensure that countries have adequate food and water, are resilient to climate change and disasters, shift to green economic pathways, and can sustain work for billions of people through forestry, agriculture, fisheries and tourism.

A long-standing partner of the Global Environment Facility, and now with the second-largest Green Climate Fund portfolio, UNDP is the primary actor on climate change in the United Nations. Our aim is to help build the Paris Agreement and all environmental agreements into the heart of countries’ development priorities. After all, the food, shelter, clean air, education and opportunities of billions of people depend on getting this right.

Clean, affordable energy

People can’t prosper without reliable, safe, and affordable energy to power everything from lights to vehicles to factories to hospitals. And yet, 840 million people worldwide have no access to electricity, and 2.9 billion people use solid fuels to cook or heat their homes, exposing their families to grave health hazards and contributing to vast deforestation worldwide 3 . In these and other ways, energy is connected to every one of the SDGs.

UNDP helps countries transition away from the use of finite fossil fuels and towards clean, renewable, affordable sources of energy. Our sustainable energy portfolio spans more than 110 countries, leveraging billions of dollars in financing, including public and private sources. With this financial support, we partner with cities and industries to increase the share of renewables in countries’ national energy mix; establish solar energy access to people displaced by conflict; fuel systemic change in the transport industry; and generate renewable ways to light homes for millions of people. 

Women's empowerment and gender equality

Women’s participation in all areas of society is essential to make big and lasting change not only for themselves, but for all people. Women and girls make up a disproportionate share of people in poverty, and are more likely to face hunger, violence, and the impacts of disaster and climate change. They are also more likely to be denied access to legal rights and basic services.

UNDP has the ability and responsibility to integrate gender equality into every aspect of our work. Gender equality and women’s empowerment is a guiding principle that applies to everything we do, collaborating with our partner countries to end gender-based violence, tackle climate change with women farmers, and advance female leadership in business and politics.

[1] OECD , States of Fragility 2016: Understanding Violence (Paris, 2016), p. 16. .

[2] sendai framework for disaster risk reduction 2015-2030, p.9. ., [3] source: iea, irena, unsd, wb, who, 2019, tracking sdg7: the energy progress report 2019, washington, dc..

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problem solving approach in community development

Chapter 3 Sections

Communities have problems, just like people

Problems are part of life. We all deal with individual problems, families have family issues, and communities have community problems. Communities must come together to solve their problems, just like families.

When communities try to solve problems, they start just like individuals do. They must reflect and analyze the issue to help come to a solution. But, before discussing solutions, problems must be identified.

So, after discussing a little bit about what problems look like, this section will explain what analyzing community problems is about, why it can be helpful, and then how to do it.

What is a community problem?

Problems can arise in any part of a community and come from any aspect of community life. There's a long list of nominees, and you probably know some of the main contenders. Can you name the leading problems in your community? Chances are you can at least start the list.

Below are examples of community problems:

Example Community Problems: Adolescent pregnancy, access to clean drinking water, child abuse and neglect, crime, domestic violence, drug use, pollution, mismanagement of resources, lack of funding for schools and services, ethnic conflict, health disparities, HIV/ AIDS, hunger, inadequate emergency services, inequality, jobs, lack of affordable housing, poverty,  transportation, violence, racism and police brutality.

What others would you add?

Rather than aim for a complete problem list, here are some criteria you may consider when identifying community problems:

This last criterion, perception, is an important one, and can also help indicate readiness for addressing the issue within the community.

What is seen as a problem can vary from place to place and group to group in the same community. Although there's no official definition of a community problem, the above examples and criteria above should help you begin to name and analyze community problems.

Why should I analyze a community problem?

Analyzing community problems is a way of thinking carefully about a problem or issue before acting on a solution. It first involves identifying reasons a problem exists and then, identifying possible solutions and a plan for improvement.

Example: The downtown area of a community is declining. Stores are closing, and moving out; no new stores are moving in. We want to revitalize that downtown. How should we do it?

Our thinking here is simple:

Starting with an analysis can help…

To better identify what the problem or issue is.

Kids gather on the street. Sometimes they drink, and sometimes, they get rowdy. What is the problem here? The drinking, the rowdiness, the gathering itself? Or, is it possible that kids have nowhere else to go and few positive alternatives for engagement? Before looking for solutions, you would want to clarify just what is the problem (or problems) here. Unless you are clear, it's hard to move forward.

Problems are usually symptoms of something else. What is that something? We should find out.

To determine the barriers and resources associated with addressing the problem.

It's good practice and planning to anticipate barriers and obstacles before they might arise. By doing so, you can mitigate them. Analyzing community problems can also help you understand the resources you need. The better equipped you are with the right resources and support, the higher your chances of success.

To develop the best action steps for addressing the problem.

Having a plan of action is always better than taking a few random shots at the problem. If you know where you are going, you are more likely to get there.

Having a deeper understanding of a problem before you start trying to solve it helps you cover all of your bases. There's nothing worse for member involvement and morale than beginning to work on a problem, and running up against lots of obstacles, especially when they are avoidable.

When you take a little time to examine a problem first, you can anticipate some of these obstacles before they come up, and give yourself and your members better odds of coming up with a successful solution.

When should I analyze a community problem?

Every community problem benefits from analysis. The only possible exception is when the problem is an immediate crisis that requires action at this very moment . And even then, reviews should be conducted after to help plan for the next crisis.

However, there are conditions when an analysis is especially critical:

How should I analyze a community problem?

The ultimate goal is to understand the problem better and to deal with it more effectively, so the method you choose should accomplish that goal. We'll offer some step-by-step guidelines here and go over a couple of specific ways to determine the causes of the problem.

1. Justify the choice of the problem .

Apply the criteria we’ve listed above – frequency, duration, range, severity, equity, perception – as well as asking yourself whether your organization or another can address it effectively, in order to decide whether the problem is one that you should focus on.

Let’s take the problem we used as an example earlier: The percentage of overweight and obese children in the community has been steadily increasing, and now approaches 25%. Since we know that childhood obesity tends to lead to adult obesity, and that obesity and being overweight are linked to chronic conditions – diabetes, heart disease, stroke – this is a problem that needs to be addressed now. Our organization has the will and the ability to do it.

2. Frame the problem .

State the problem without implying a solution or blaming anyone , so that you can analyze it without any assumptions and build consensus around whatever solution you arrive at.  One way is to state it in terms of a lack of a positive behavior, condition, or other factor, or  the presence or size of a negative behavior, condition, or other factor.

There are too many children in the community who are overweight or obese. The problem is particularly serious among low-income families.

3. Identify whose behavior and/or what and how environmental factors need to change for the problem to begin to be solved.

This can be as straightforward as individuals changing their behavior from smoking to not smoking, or as complex as persuading legislators to change laws and policies (e.g., non-smoking ordinances) in order to change others’ behavior (smokers don’t smoke in buildings or enclosed spaces used by the public) in order to benefit yet another group by changing the environment (children are protected from secondhand smoke in public.)

All, and particularly low-income, children should have the opportunity and the motivation to eat more healthily and exercise more. Parents may need to change their children’s – and perhaps their own – diets, and schools may need to adjust their lunch programs and exercise schedules. In low-income neighborhoods, there needs to be greater access to healthy food and more safe places for children to play or participate in sports, both outdoors and indoors.

4. Analyze the root causes of the problem.

The real cause of a problem may not be immediately apparent.  It may be a function of a social or political system, or may be rooted in a behavior or situation that may at first glance seem unrelated to it. In order to find the underlying cause, you may have to use one or more analytical methods, including critical thinking and the “But Why?” technique .

Very briefly, the latter consists of stating the problem as you perceive it and asking “But why?” The next step is to answer that question as well as you can and then asking again, “But why?” By continuing this process until you get an answer that can’t be reduced further, you can often get to the underlying cause of the problem, which will tell you where to direct your efforts to solve it.

The difference between recognizing a problem and finding its root cause is similar to the difference between a doctor’s treating the symptoms of a disease and actually curing the disease. Once a disease is understood well enough to cure, it is often also understood well enough to prevent or eliminate. Similarly, once you understand the root causes of a community problem, you may be able not only to solve it, but to establish systems or policies that prevent its return.

There are too many children in the community who are overweight or obese . The problem is particularly serious among low-income families. (But why?) Because many low-income children don’t eat a healthy diet and don’t exercise enough. (But why?) Because their parents, in many cases, don’t have the knowledge of what a healthy diet consists of, and because, even if they did, they lack access in their neighborhoods to healthy foods – no supermarkets, produce markets, farmers’ markets, or restaurants serving healthy food – and therefore shop at convenience stores and eat out at fast food places. Kids don’t play outside because it’s too dangerous – gang activity and drug dealing make the street no place for children. (But why?) Parents may never have been exposed to information about healthy food – they simply don’t have the knowledge. Market owners view low-income neighborhoods as unprofitable and dangerous places to do business. The streets are dangerous because there are few job opportunities in the community, and young men turn to making money in any way possible. By this point, you should have a fair understanding of why kids don’t eat healthily or get enough exercise. As you continue to question, you may begin to think about advocacy with local officials for incentives to bring supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods, or for after-school programs that involve physical exercise, or for parent nutrition education or for anti-gang programs…or for all of these and other efforts besides. Or continued questioning may reveal deeper causes that you feel your organization can tackle.

5. Identify the restraining and driving forces that affect the problem .

This is called a force field analysis. It means looking at the restraining forces that act to keep the problem from changing (social structures, cultural traditions, ideology, politics, lack of knowledge, lack of access to healthy conditions, etc.) and the driving forces that push it toward change (dissatisfaction with the way things are, public opinion, policy change, ongoing public education efforts, existing alternatives to unhealthy or unacceptable activity or conditions, etc.) Consider how you can use your understanding of these forces in devising solutions to the problem.

Forces restraining change here include: The desirability and availability of junk food – kids like it because it tastes good (we’re programmed as a species to like fat, salt, and sugar), and you can get it on every corner in practically any neighborhood. The reluctance of supermarket chains to open stores in low-income neighborhoods. The domination of the streets by gangs and drug dealers. Some forces driving change might be : Parents’ concern about their children’s weight. Children’s desire to participate in sports or simply to be outdoors. Media stories about the problem of childhood obesity and its consequences for children, both now and in their later lives. A full force field analysis probably would include many more forces in each category.

6. Find any relationships that exist among the problem you’re concerned with and others in the community.

In analyzing root causes, you may have already completed this step. It may be that other problems stem from the same root cause, and that there are other organizations with whom you could partner. Understanding the relationships among community issues can be an important step toward resolving them.

We’ve already seen connections to lack of education, unemployment, lack of after-school programs, and gang violence and crime, among other issues. Other organizations may be working on one or more of these, and a collaboration might help both of you to reach your goals.

7. Identify personal factors that may contribute to the problem .

Whether the problem involves individual behavior or community conditions, each individual affected by it brings a whole collection of knowledge (some perhaps accurate, some perhaps not), beliefs, skills, education, background, experience, culture, and assumptions about the world and others, as well as biological and genetic traits. Any or all of these might contribute to the problem or to its solution…or both.

A few examples : Genetic predisposition for diabetes and other conditions. Lack of knowledge about healthy nutrition. Lack of knowledge/ skills for preparing healthy foods.

8. Identify environmental factors that may contribute to the problem.

Just as there are factors relating to individuals that may contribute to or help to solve the problem you’re concerned with, there are also factors within the community environment that may do the same. These might include the availability or lack of services, information, and other support; the degree of accessibility and barriers to, and opportunities for services, information, and other support; the social, financial, and other costs and benefits of change; and such overarching factors as poverty, living conditions, official policy, and economic conditions.

Sample environmental factors : Poverty Lack of employment and hope for young men in low-income neighborhoods Lack of availability of healthy food in low-income neighborhoods General availability – at school as well as elsewhere – of snack foods high in salt, sugar, and fat Constant media bombardment of advertising of unhealthy snacks, drinks, and fast food

9. Identify targets and agents of change for addressing the problem .

Whom should you focus your efforts on, and who has the power to improve the situation?  Often, these may be the same people. The best solution to a particular problem may be policy change of some sort, for instance, and the best route to that may be to mount an advocacy effort aimed at officials who can make it happen. People who are suffering from lack of skills or services may be the ones who can do the most to change their situation. In other cases, your targets may be people whose behavior or circumstances need to change, and you may want to recruit agents of change to work with you in your effort. The point of this step is to understand where and how to direct your work most effectively.

Targets of change might include : Parents of children in low-income neighborhoods (or all parents in the community) for education purposes The children themselves Elementary and middle school teachers School officials responsible for school food programs Executives and Public Relations officers of supermarket chains Gang members and youth at risk of becoming gang members A short list of potential agents of change : Parents of children in low-income neighborhoods (or all parents in the community) as controllers of their children’s diets The Superintendent of Schools, School Committee, and school administrators, as well as those directly responsible for school food programs Local public officials who could create incentives for markets to move into underserved neighborhoods Community Recreation Commissions, school officials, YMCAs, and other entities that might create safe outdoor and indoor physical activity programs for children Community hospitals, clinics, and private medical practices Public relations offices of national or regional fast food restaurant chains

With your analysis complete, you can develop a strategic plan that speaks to the real causes of the problem and focuses on those targets and/or agents of change that are most likely to contribute to improving the situation.

Going beyond the basics -- does analysis really work?

Try this analysis out with a current problem in your own community setting.

What do you conclude? We hope you'll find some value in analysis. We do know that when we have tried this method with real problems in our own communities, we have drawn some additional conclusions of our own, going beyond the basics:

When analyzing real community problems, the analysis may show multiple reasons behind the problem. The analysis may not always be easy. The solution may be more difficult still.

But that's why problems are problems. Community problems exist precisely because they often resist clear analysis and solution. They persist despite our efforts. They can be real challenges.

Yet this doesn't mean we are helpless. Analysis, including the analytic methods we have described, can take you a long way. With good analysis, some resources, and enough determination, we believe even the most troublesome problems can be addressed, and ultimately, solved.

Online Resources

Assessment Primer: Analyzing the Community, Identifying Problems and Setting Goals  is provided by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and the National Community Anti-Drug Coalition Institute. This helpful primer is designed to provide clear guidelines for anti-drug coalitions in defining their communities and assessing the real needs within them.

Best Practices to Address Community Gang Problems from is a report that provides guidance to communities that are considering how to address a youth gang problem.

Framing the Issue , by Trudy Rice, Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel and Karla Trautman, is a useful resource that explains how to analyze community problems and access community data. It includes a detailed step-by-step presentation.

Print Resources

Avery, M., Auvine, B., Streibel, B., & Weiss, L. (1981).  Building united judgement: A handbook for consensus decision making . Madison, WI: Center for Conflict Resolution. (Available from the Center at P.O. Box 2156, Madison, WI 53701 -2156).

Cox, F. (1995). Community problem solving: A guide to practice with comments. In Rothman, J., Erlich, J., & Tropman, J. (eds.),  Strategies of community intervention  (5th ed., pp. 146-162). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.

Dale, D., & Mitiguy, N. (1978).  Planning for a change: A citizen's guide to creative planning and program development . Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, Citizen Involvement Training Project.

Johnson, D., & Johnson, F. (1997).  Joining together: Group theory and group skills  (6th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lawson, L., Donant, F., & Lawson, J. (1982).  Lead on! The complete handbook for group leaders . San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

Mondross, J., & Wilson, S. (1994).  Organizing for power and empowerment .  New York, NY: Columbia University Press.


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  1. EDU305_Topic013

  2. Online Course in Community Development (Hordhac)Afsoomaali

  3. Approaches to the study of Community Development in Urdu and English with Examples

  4. Session 7 Community Development Process

  5. Cooperative Problem Based Learning

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  1. 3.2: Problem Solving Approaches and Interventions

    Application of this approach requires grasp of the complete problem including the hierarchy, order, patterns, and boundaries of individuals and social groups including their interactions, relationships, and processes as a body or structure surrounding the issue (Bruhn and Rebach 2007).

  2. Section 9. Community Action Guide: Framework for Addressing Community

    Brainstorming is a problem-solving technique that encourages all members of a group to contribute ideas. You may find this technique of idea generation particularly helpful in the early phases of action planning. ... KU Work Group on Health Promotion & Community Development, Lawrence, Kansas. Puddy, R., Fawcett, S., & Francisco, V. (July 2002 ...

  3. (PDF) Effective approaches to community development

    The paper highlights on different approaches to community development. The community development approaches include: needs-based approach, problem-solving approach,...

  4. 12 Common Community Development Approaches

    Identifying leaders and bringing them together is a powerful way to kick-off Community Development. Oftentimes, they will then map out the course for broader efforts. #3 Foster Neighborhood Connectivity Neighborhoods thrive when neighbors know and rely on each other. Bonded neighbors feel responsible for each other.

  5. Understanding Community Needs based on Community Perspectives

    The approach is consistent with the principles of Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) whereby community members participate with researches in solving community problems identified by the community - community members themselves are best-equipped to identify and prioritize the issues that are important to them, and to then collaborate …

  6. What is Problem Solving? Steps, Process & Techniques

    Problem solving is the act of defining a problem; determining the cause of the problem; identifying, prioritizing, and selecting alternatives for a solution; and implementing a solution. The problem-solving process Problem solving resources Problem Solving Chart The Problem-Solving Process

  7. PDF A Problem-Solving Approach

    Community health management: a problem-solving approach 6 Senior health managers and faculty staff have often been sceptical about the methodology as it differs from the traditional, often theoretical, patterns of training typically used in the Region. However, scepticism changes to interest in the light of

  8. The Problem-Solving Process

    Problem-solving is a mental process that involves discovering, analyzing, and solving problems. The ultimate goal of problem-solving is to overcome obstacles and find a solution that best resolves the issue. The best strategy for solving a problem depends largely on the unique situation. In some cases, people are better off learning everything ...

  9. 12 Approaches To Problem-Solving for Every Situation

    A problem-solving approach is a technique people use to better understand the problems they face and to develop optimal solutions. They empower people to devise more innovative solutions by helping them overcome old or binary ways of thinking. Related: How To Create Your Own Problem-Solving Process

  10. Problem-Solving Therapy: Definition, Techniques, and Efficacy

    One problem-solving technique, called planful problem-solving, involves following a series of steps to fix issues in a healthy, constructive way: 3 Problem definition and formulation: This step involves identifying the real-life problem that needs to be solved and formulating it in a way that allows you to generate potential solutions.

  11. Chapter 2. Other Models for Promoting Community Health and Development

    Collective impact refers to the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem at scale. Like other models in Chapter 2 of the Community Tool Box, this section aims to provide an overview of this approach and links to resources for its implementation.

  12. PDF Appreciative Inquiry: Solving Our Problems by Looking at What is Going

    Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a new approach to community development, based on the simple assumption that every community has ... This is fundamentally different from the problem-solving Deficit Approach, which focuses on the things that are not working and tries to fix them. Building the capacity of an organization or community is a ...

  13. What Is Creative Problem-Solving & Why Is It Important?

    Creative Problem-Solving and Design Thinking. Whereas creative problem-solving facilitates developing innovative ideas through a less structured workflow, design thinking takes a far more organized approach. Design thinking is a human-centered, solutions-based process that fosters the ideation and development of solutions.

  14. Section 2. Thinking Critically

    Critical thinking is an important tool in solving community problems and in developing interventions or initiatives in health, human services, and community development. Elements of critical thinking There are a number of ways to look at the process of critical thinking. Brookfield presents several, with this one being perhaps the simplest.

  15. (PDF) Community-led Development: Perspectives and Approaches of Four

    Evaluating Complex Comprehensive Community Initiatives: Theory, Measurement and Analysis Chapter Full-text available Jan 2001 Anne C. Kubisch James P. Connell Karen Fulbright-Anderson View Show...

  16. How to Develop Problem Solving Skills: 4 Tips

    Creativity: Effective problem solving requires the ability to brainstorm solutions and think outside the box to arrive at new approaches to longstanding problems. 2. Teamwork: Addressing a group problem or systemic social problem requires you to work collaboratively and supportively with other team members. 3.

  17. 8-Step Problem Solving Process

    Step 7: Evaluate the Results. Monitor and Collect Data. Did you meet your goals defined in step 3? If not, repeate th 8-Step Process. Were there any unforeseen consequences? If problem is resolved, remove activities that were added previously to contain the problem.

  18. 7. Developing an Intervention

    Developing an Intervention. 7. Developing an Intervention. This toolkit provides supports for developing core components of a community intervention and adapting them to fit the context. Identify the community problem/goal to be addressed and what needs to be done. Include: Assess the level of the problem or goal.

  19. Reflections on The Problem-based Approach and The Asset-based Approach

    applying the problem-based approach to community develo pment. Social thinking is an uncomplicated method used in natural human engagement, is change-oriented, uses a citizen ship approach, is the ...

  20. Why Groups Struggle to Solve Problems Together

    Why Groups Struggle to Solve Problems Together. Summary. There are five stages of problem solving: defining the problem, generating solutions, evaluating solutions, picking a solution, and making ...

  21. Development challenges and solutions

    A robust, integrated way to put our best work - or 'signature' skillset - into achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. UNDP's Signature Solutions are cross-cutting approaches to development— for example, a gender approach or resilience approach can be applied to any area of development, or to any of the SDGs. Keeping people out of ...

  22. ERIC

    In "The Information Self-help Approach", H. Y. McClusky suggests that the right kind of information applied by knowledgeable participants at strategic junctures can make a difference in community development. In chapter 4, R. Thomas places heavy emphasis upon the "special problem" as the target for resolution in a problem-solving approach.

  23. Chapter 3. Assessing Community Needs and Resources

    Analyzing community problems is a way of thinking carefully about a problem or issue before acting on a solution. It first involves identifying reasons a problem exists and then, identifying possible solutions and a plan for improvement. Example: The downtown area of a community is declining.

  24. ERIC

    In addition to being educationally unsound, this teaching approach has limited the development of the critical thinking skills needed for effective reform in the community policing era. Problem-based learning (PBL), a teaching method linked to social constructivist theory, has been widely advocated in recent years as an alternate teaching ...