You have your project brief in hand, you’ve met with your client, maybe you’ve even held a productive discovery session with them. You understand what needs to be done and are eager to start ideating toward a solution.
But what about the problem statement?
This may be the last thing your team wants to do. Some may even think writing out a problem statement is old fashioned. And who even uses them anymore?
We’re here to change your mind.
A well-written problem statement is how today’s most successful teams bring clarity and focus to the problems they face. Learning how to write a good one is a not-so-secret tool for coming up with more effective solutions.
What is a problem statement?
A problem statement is a clear, concise explanation of the problem or challenge you intend to solve. It is meant to give you, your team, and any other stakeholders clarity and focus around the problem. This not only helps you get buy-in from your client, but also makes it easier to prioritize what’s most important — and not get distracted by anything else.
You should write out your problem statement after you’ve done some initial research but before you have begun your work. This will give you the necessary context to create as accurate a statement as possible, while also helping guide your team as you move forward.
You can either create it as a solo activity or as part of a larger workshop, depending on your circumstances. If you’ve already planned a discovery session, writing a problem statement could be a great way to cap off the meeting and ensure everyone is aligned.
What makes a good problem statement
First and foremost, a good problem statement is anything that helps spur you and your team into action by describing and clarifying the issues at hand.
While this can take many forms — and is often dependent on factors such as the scope and complexity of the problem — the most effective statements typically focus on the root cause of the issue by objectively describing it in as comprehensive a way as possible. The five Ws can be a good strategy for doing this:
- Who is having the problem? This could refer to individuals, groups, or entire organizations. It is anyone (or anything) that is affected by the problem.
- What is the problem? This can be thought of as the gap that has formed between the current state and the desired state. Try to sketch out the boundaries of this gap and describe the unmet need that exists.
- Where does this problem occur? This could be a geographic location (such as a city or company), a physical object (such as a product), an entity (such as a marketing department), or even a process (such as commuting).
- When does this problem occur? Is there a certain timeframe in which the issue occurs? Is there a deadline by which it needs to be solved?
- Why is the problem worth solving? This should focus on the importance of fixing the problem. What kind of impact will it make? How will solving it affect customers, employees, and other stakeholders? In short, what makes a solution worthwhile?
Effective problem statement examples
Good problem statements don’t need to be complicated. In fact, as these examples show, they should be simple and direct. In one sentence, they describe exactly what the problem is, leaving little to no ambiguity about what should happen next.
Note: While some may recommend including a proposed solution in the problem statement, we think it’s best to leave this out. After all, the goal is to get people thinking creatively about their own solutions.
Problem statement example #1
“The lack of access to clean water in rural areas of developing countries is leading to increased incidence of water-borne diseases and impeding socio-economic development.”
This statement clearly identifies a specific problem — the lack of access to clean water — and highlights the negative consequences that result from it: an increase in diseases and a lack of socio-economic development. By focusing on the problem in this way, it provides a clear and concise foundation for any potential solutions. Additionally, the statement highlights the urgency of the issue and the need for action, making it more likely to inspire action and generate interest from stakeholders.
Problem statement example #2
“An employee turnover of 35% in company X is negatively impacting productivity, morale, and profitability.”
Notice how this statement identifies who the problem affects (company X and its employees), what is happening (a high turnover rate), and why it is important (productivity, morale, and profitability). This creates a clear place to focus action and start coming up with possible solutions. What’s more, by calling out the current state of turnovers (35%), it gives a specific metric to improve.
How to write effective problem statements
Writing a great problem statement should be thought of as less of an action and more of a process. You don’t just sit down and write one out (at least, most of us don’t). Instead, you should carefully seek to understand and frame every aspect of the problem at hand in order to capture it as clearly as possible.
Here is a step-by-step methodology you can follow in order to do this.
1. Identify and understand the problem
This can be thought of as the data-gathering stage. It’s when you get out into the field, interview stakeholders, and spend time in the environment where the problem exists so that you can experience it first-hand. Basically, you should be doing whatever it takes to gain as thorough an understanding of the problem as you can so that you can not only identify it, but describe its root causes.
2. Draft the problem statement
Now it’s time to start writing out a statement that is as clear and comprehensive as possible. As you do this, be aware of how you are framing the problem. You want to be careful to avoid any bias and to remain completely objective. Potential issues to look out for include:
- Describing a symptom instead of the root cause. If this happens, go back to your notes to try to uncover why something is happening, not what.
- Presenting a preferred solution. It can often be tempting to write a problem statement in such a way that only one solution is possible. Fix this by looking for ways you can broaden the focus.
- A lack of clarity. This can be caused by trying to capture too many problems at once, or not clearly framing the gap between how the current and desired states.
3. Refine and iterate
Once you think you’ve captured the problem, don’t stop there. Continue to refine it by analyzing it from multiple perspectives. Would someone not familiar with the stakeholders and their background be able to understand the problem? Would someone from a different field altogether be able to identify the root cause?
If you haven’t already, this can be a good opportunity to open up the problem statement to other members of your team to get their point of view. Ask them if it matches their understanding of the problem. Try to identify any potential ambiguities. When you’ve reached a point at which the problem lacks an obvious solution and is generating healthy discussion, you’re probably there.
Templates to help you create actionable problem statements
When drafting your problem statement, there’s no reason to start from a completely blank slate. The following templates can help kickstart the process of drilling down into the root causes, framing the issue, and defining exactly what the problem is:
Define, understand, and solve problems faster
The art of writing problem statements shouldn’t be lost on your team. Learning to create effective statements enables you to get a better understanding of what has caused the problem, who and what the problem impacts, and why it should be solved in the first place. Knowing how to state this in language that is clear, concise, and impactful is one of the best ways to set you and your team up for success.
How have problem statements helped you come up with creative solutions? We’d love to hear how you’ve put them to use — and how you keep using them today.
Learn more about facilitation and how you can succeed at it wherever you are by downloading our Definitive Guide to Facilitating Remote Workshops.