A costly and common mistake: underestimating the power of problem statements.

If you want to solve a problem in a targeted, viable and enduring way, you must first identify it.

But in the rush to get things done, we often miss a vital step: robust problem formulation. We can’t beat ourselves up for not being great at formulating problems or missing it altogether. It’s not something we’re taught at schools, colleges, and universities. Problem formulation can sound negative – why focus so deeply on the problem when we can get straight to work solving issues?

If your solution is based on a shallow understanding of the problem though, then your original problem is going to keep coming back. And it could get worse.

Problem statements – a proven framework to identify problems.  

Before you can even begin to solve problems, you’ve got to really grasp the extent of the problem and its surrounding context. Too often I’ve seen teams rushing to meet some arbitrary deadline or launch date before they are crystal clear on the problem.

This is faulty thinking for three reasons.

1) If you don’t know the full scale of the problem and the root causes behind it, you can’t know the full range of opportunities either.

2) We can throw money and time at a solution only to realise down the track that we’ve been skirting around the edges of the problem and therefore not changing the process or the environment. 

If we continue with the back pain analogy above, what that person needed was to change their chair or posture and make lifestyle changes like stretching and moving more often. But money, time and energy can be wasted in solving the presenting problem – pain – rather than diving deep into the cause.

We can powerfully counteract this by developing problem statements. 

A problem statement clearly identifies and states the problem, giving us a clear idea of the scope of the problem, its context, and an initial sense of the resources we need. 

We arrive at a problem statement through a rigorous process of:

“answering questions…what’s the need? is it justified? what’s the context? This helps establish a consensus on what a viable solution would be and what resources would be required to achieve it.”

Quote from: Are You Solving the Right Problem?  (Paraphrased in part.)

Let’s look at each of those three questions in turn – what’s the need? is it justified? what’s the context? 

What’s the need? The five whys.

Taking the back pain problem example again. The person’s surface need is to get rid of their pain.

But is this the actual need? No, not if we go digging.

We can get to the bottom of the actual need by asking ‘five whys’ as developed by Toyota.

1) Why are you here today? Because my back’s sore.

2) Why? Because when I move it twinges.

3) Why? Because I’m not moving much.

4) Why? Because I’m busy sitting at my desk.

5) Why? Because I feel like I can’t take regular breaks.

By the time we’ve got to the fourth why we’ve reached the cause – ‘busy sitting at my desk’. The fifth why is showing the person’s real issue – they feel like they can’t take regular breaks. So, from here we could suggest their underlying need is to set limits of how often they sit at their desk for prolonged periods.  

Perhaps they need to delegate more or speak to their boss. Perhaps they might need to move to walking meetings. 

The good thing about getting to the fifth why is you can see if it’s an individual problem – which often it’s not – or an organisational or societal problem. It helps you see the scale and boundaries of the problem which are often wider than we first imagine.

Is it justified?

Does solving the problem align with your organisation’s strategies and priorities? If your strategy is to increase productivity by having less staff absenteeism, then sorting out the problem of your staff’s back pain makes sense. If your priority is your staff’s health and wellbeing, it is logical (and kind) to address why your employee feels like they can’t take regular breaks away from their desk.

What’s the context?

Next, we need to look at past attempts to solve the problem – your organisations’ and others in your industry. 

It’s important to examine why those past attempts didn’t work.

Now you are moving beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the problem and embracing critical, deep, and innovative thinking.

If you discover the problem is industrywide – why has the market been unable to solve it? 

The overarching aim of this step is to find solutions that might already exist and solutions that have already been unsuccessful. Don’t make the mistake of reinventing the wheel or throwing money at dead ends. 

During this step, you will also consider the internal and external limits on implementing a solution. Do you have permission? Do you have the resources? Is it breaking any rules or going against your processes? Do you need to hire more staff? You are not moving into problem-solving territory here, but you do need to know early on if you are allowed to continue or if it’s worth the investment. 

Now you can write a complete description of the problem you want to solve and the real needs your solution must meet.

Problem formulation can take weeks and involve lots of people. It’s worth the effort.

To reap lasting rewards from these exercises, I will always suggest you take your time and question staff from different departments. This will give you a deeper, wider understanding of the issue and save you a lot of time, stress and money in the long-run.

The good news is, the time and money you invest in problem formulation will create a solid foundation for the next step: building cost-effective, viable, long-term solutions.

What are your go-to techniques for identifying problems? Share them below 

Further reading:

Not So Fast: What Problem Are We Trying to Solve? (forbes.com)

What Problem Are You Trying to Solve? | by Thomas P Seager, PhD | Age of Awareness | Medium

Are You Solving the Right Problem? (hbr.org)


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