Developing a Robust Problem Definition
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.
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.