What is the grounded, particular problem?

“I have just cut my thumb very deeply in trying to catch a falling glass while washing up. There is blood everywhere and there is no-one around to help. I am afraid I might lose my thumb.” That is a ‘grounded’ problem. (Said with real feeling.)

"Humans' instinctive reaction to protect property sometimes overrides their instinct for self-preservation." An abstract generalisation from analysis of the grounded problem.

I am struggling to convey what I mean by a 'grounded' problem and I do not know why. It is a term which means much the same in a scientific context as in general usage. In essence, it means ‘rooted in reality'.

I know what I mean. Clearly some proposers know what I mean, since we have had some very punchy problem statements in the style of:

“80% of projects late”

“2 factories just closed because we could not match our competitors’ delivery times for customised orders”

“The SS Alexandria, owned and operated by our collaborator, MM Marine, with control systems designed by our collaborator NaviTech, sank in high seas with the loss of over 100 passengers and crew”

And then there are the ‘positive’ opportunity-oriented statements:

“One of our collaborators, Acme Automata, manufactures programmable self-propelled machines for terrain sampling and surveillance. They perceive a potential market for self organising groups of these machines to ...”

Too often, though, despite the industrial collaborators having well-grounded problems, the problem as expressed in the proposal is still phrased abstractly. Now, it is reasonable for both academics and industrial problem owners to have analysed the grounded problem and then generalised into something like “The organisation needs a way to manage its knowledge effectively.” Indeed, you are unlikely to have got as far as thinking of making a research proposal otherwise. And we will be wanting that version when we come on to the 'underlying problem'. But it is not the grounded expression of the problem with which to launch the proposal.

So why, having put in all that hard thought and done that analysis and generalisation to arrive at a crisp, succinct, if abstract, expression of the problem, do I want you to go back to the specific, with all its narrowness and special circumstance?

Two reasons. First, the reader doesn’t know if you arrived at that abstract expression from a grounded base, so they don’t know if you (your group, your organisation, ...) really understands the problem, or if it is just book-learned from research journals or trade magazines. Second, because a grounded expression of your problem imbues in the reader a feeling that you will be really motivated both to seek a solution and to implement it if successful. In a well-grounded proposal you can sense the reality, the earnestness of the partners, the passion, even.

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