Developing a Robust Problem Definition

CATWOE - Developing a Robust Problem Definition

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CATWOE helps you to look before you leap.

What do you do when you're faced with a really big business problem? What if your employee retention was low, for example, and you wanted to know why?

Your first step might be to brainstorm the possible reasons, and apply a range of different problem-solving skills to fix them. But what if you've focused on the wrong problem, or you're just looking at one symptom of a larger problem? By focusing on one specific aspect, you tend to stop looking for other potential issues. That's when you risk missing the core problem, which could be much more serious than the problem you identified first. This is where CATWOE comes in handy. 

Understanding CATWOE

In the 1960s Peter Checkland, a systems engineering professor, developed a problem-solving methodology called Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), which sought to apply systems principles to business and other "soft" problems.

SSM conceptualizes the activities or business being examined as a system, the essence of which is encapsulated in a "Root Definition."

In 1975, David Smyth, a researcher in Checkland's department, observed that SSM was most successful when the Root Definition included certain elements. These elements, remembered by the mnemonic CATWOE*, identified the people, processes, and environment that contribute to a situation, issue, or problem that you need to analyze.

CATWOE stands for:

Customers Who are they, and how does the issue affect them?
Actors Who is involved in the situation? Who will be involved in implementing solutions? And what will impact their success?
Transformation Process What processes or systems are affected by the issue?
World View What is the big picture? And what are the wider impacts of the issue?
Owner Who owns the process or situation you are investigating? And what role will they play in the solution?
Environmental Constraints What are the constraints and limitations that will impact the solution and its success?

When you look at all six of these elements, and consider the situation from all of these perspectives, you open your thinking beyond the issue that sits directly in front of you. By using CATWOE, the output of your brainstorming and problem solving should be much more comprehensive, because you have considered the issue from these six, very different, perspectives.


Before you try to solve an important problem, use the CATWOE checklist to brainstorm the various people and elements that are affected.

Taking the example of low employee retention rates that we used at the start of this article, start your thinking not with reasons why it is happening or by trying to identify solutions, but by using CATWOE to expand your thinking about the situation in general.

Step One

Define what you are thinking about. Remember, this is not a problem statement; it is...

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