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Boundary examination, described by Rickards (1974) and VanGundy (1981) offers a refinement of problem definition. It is similar to paraphrasing key words and Boundary Relaxation. Defining a problem gives a clear task to focus on. The definition highlights some features of the situation as being particularly relevant, and plays down others as largely irrelevant. The problem boundary is the notional 'container', which separates highly relevant features (inside the boundary) from less relevant ones (outside the boundary).
The problem definition, and what is relevant or not, often evolves as your understanding of the situation develops. If the boundary has been provided for you (e.g. because someone else has defined the problem for you) it will reflect their biases and concerns as well as your own, and the boundary setting may itself be part of the problem. It is easy for the area outside the boundary to become ignored ‘background’. This simple method from De Bono (1982) is designed to bring potentially relevant aspects back into awareness.
- Write down an initial statement of the problem.
- Underline key words
- Examine each key word for hidden assumptions. A good way to do this is to see how the meaning of the statement changes if you replace a key word by a synonym or near synonym.
- Having explored how the particular choice of key words affects the meaning of the statement, see if you can redefine the problem in a better way.
- The aim is not necessarily to change the position of the boundary but rather to understand more clearly how the wording of the problem is affecting our assumptions about the boundary.