Why your project should start with a problem statement

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplash

Starting a new project is like starting a new adventure: it can be exciting, challenging and stressful at the same time. The goal and the vision is the part that stimulates us. The journey to the destination can become nerve-racking, especially without a clearly defined map and lack of navigation.

If you are looking for ways to improve the navigation process in your next project, this article is for you: learning how to start with a proper problem statement will give you the compass you have been missing so far.

What is a problem statement?

A problem statement is a concise and concrete summary of the problem or challenge you want to address. It needs to be specific enough to guide your thoughts and choices, yet broad enough to foster creativity and curiosity. But here’s the secret sauce: a great problem definition is not only looking at your business objectives and insights but also taking into account the desires and aspirations of your target audience.

Why do you need a problem statement?

A well-crafted problem statement empowers you to focus on the right problem and gain a deep understanding of its root causes. With this clarity, you can confidently guide your project toward success and avoid wasting precious resources on the wrong solution. In addition, problem statements allow you to:

  • Communicate the problem effectively to others, which can lead to more productive discussions and better decision-making across the board
  • Find innovative ideas 
  • Create an action plan to solve the identified problem
  • Build trust and credibility with your stakeholders as you understand the key issues at play

When do you need a problem statement?

A problem statement should be one of your first steps when you start a new project, especially if it is an improvement project. You want to ensure that everyone in your project team understands and agrees on what the real problem is that needs to be solved. This shared understanding is the compass that guides teams through the complex landscape of project development, steering them toward success.

? Example:

We tend to jump past the problem and go directly to the solution stage. And I see many projects starting that way: the focus is set on an objective that includes already a specific solution (i.e. we need to improve our SEO ranking, we need to modernize our website, we need to build a mobile app).

The issue is not having a clear objective — but jumping too quickly to a solution without fully understanding the details of the actual challenge (WHY is our SEO ranking so low, what are our customers looking for and what is our competitive advantage; WHAT is not working with our current website design, what are our customers expecting and what are we not delivering; HOW is a mobile app delivering added value to our customers and to our business).

Taking a deeper look into root causes might make you realize that your initial solution (i.e. a website redesign) is not fixing the actual problem (i.e. staying competitive in your product and pricing offering).

What makes a good problem statement

An effective problem statement describes the root causes of an issue as objectively and comprehensively as possible. It doesn’t stop at the first explanation that comes to hand. A good guiding technique is the Five Whys:

  • WHO is having the problem? Identify the audience (individuals, groups or organizations) that is affected by this problem.
  • WHAT is the problem? Think about the current state and the desired state to define the gap. What are the unmet needs that exist?
  • WHERE does the problem arise? Describe the situation and circumstances.
  • WHEN does the problem occur? Look at the timeframe and instances that trigger the problem.
  • WHY is this problem worth solving? Describe the impact of the problem and the consequences of solving it.

How do you write a problem statement?

So how do you go about crafting a problem definition that will win over stakeholders? Here are a few key steps:

1 Collect data and existing information

Before you can define the problem, you need to understand it. This means talking to stakeholders, analyzing data, and doing competitive analysis to get a sense of what’s at play. Whenever possible, get out in the field and observe the problem situation at hand. This might mean doing some “shadowing” and observing processes in action, listening into service or sales calls, or doing diary studies with your customers. The more insights you gather, the better equipped you’ll be to craft a compelling problem definition.

? Tip:

At this stage, it’s important to not only focus on the business pain points but at the customer pain points as well. What are the problems your customers are facing? What are the consequences for the business? Looking at problems from multiple angles will help you to drill down to the root causes.

For example: if you discover in your data that you have a big drop-off at a certain stage in your customer journey, collect feedback from your customers, understand what they are doing, what they are expecting, and what is missing to identify the real cause for the drop-off.

2 Put the problem into context

Based on the data you collected, describe how the problem impacts stakeholders and customers. Prioritize the issues and define the problem you want to set your focus on.

? Helpful exercises & tools:

  • Problem Framing (Using the 5 Whys to describe your problem)
  • The Sailboat (An exercise that helps to identify the current state, the desired state and the gap)

3 Find the root cause

Before you jump into solutions, stay curious and keep asking why until you’re satisfied that you’ve uncovered the root cause. Try to look at the issue from different perspectives to challenge your initial assumptions.

? Helpful exercises & tools:

  • 5 Whys (Asking why multiple times to find the root cause)
  • Reverse Brainstorming (Look at the problem from different perspectives)
  • Mind Map (Another exercise that helps to look at the problem from different perspectives)

4 Draft a problem statement

Start writing a problem statement that captures your insights as clear and detailed as possible. Be aware of cognitive biases and remain completely objective.

Make sure that you don’t include a specific solution in your problem statement, that you you are focused on a single problem and don’t try to combine multiple ones and that you are not just describing symptoms, but the root cause.

Your problem statement should include:

  • Background of the actual problem (who, when, where)
  • The impact of the problem
  • The gap (current situation vs desired situation)

? Helpful exercises & tools:

5 Refine and iterate

Share your project statement with your team, collect feedback and adjust the statement if needed. It needs to support a shared understanding and alignment on the issue at hand.

Your problem statement is effective if:

  • Your problem statement describes the root causes and not just the symptoms
  • Your problem statement allows for creative thinking and leaves room for multiple solutions
  • Your problem statement is clear to understand and describes the gap that needs to be overcome

Summary/ Wrap up

Crafting a well-defined problem statement helps to ensure that everyone involved is on the same page and committed to finding a solution. By taking the time to understand who is impacted by the problem and how it affects them, you can work towards finding a solution that truly addresses their needs. It reduces the risk of running in the wrong direction, so taking the time to get it right is crucial.

Want to learn more?

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