Problem Statement

Creating a problem statement to clearly articulate what you’re going to focus on, what it means for you and how you want to see it resolved.
Problem Statement Template Moresapien 1

What is a Problem Statement?

A problem statement is a clearly articulated summary of a problem that you’re facing. It’s used personally or collectively to clarify the issue you’re facing in the clearest possible terms.

A problem statement is used in everything from project and change management to personal goals and emotional growth. It’s a way of objectively and succinctly clarifying exactly what the problem is before you begin to fix it. This is useful when defining a need for change.

Effective problem statements can turn confused, convoluted issues into a razor-sharp target to aim towards, and challenge exactly what you want to fix in the first place.

A problem statement can be positive too

Problem statements don’t need to be negative. In fact, they can also focus on potentially positive outcomes if things change or something is done differently. We tend to call these opportunity statements but the process is exactly the same.

How is a Problem Statement used?

In order to understand why a problem statement is important, it’s worth looking at how we balance our time between defining a problem and fixing one.

Very often, we’ll weight problem solving towards fixing something rather that invest the time in really understanding the problem we’re trying to fix. Developing a problem statement forces us to inspect and articulate the problem before we embark on fixing it, making it easier to find the root cause.

This helps by artificially grounding us “in the problem” and making us take stock before we commit to action. It’s why it’s used by project manages, change professionals and systems experts across the world. It gives you (or your team) a clear and explicit problem and the outcome you want to see.

How to create your own Problem Statement

There’s a bunch of ways to build a problem statement. The process below takes some areas from a research approach, some from design thinking and a little from the more traditional method.

1. Contextualise the problem

First up, we want to build some context around the problem. This gives meat to the bones (so to speak) and adds relevant information.

It’s useful to be as specific and factual as possible in this stage, so you can add depth to the issue you’re facing.

Factual context

It’s useful to include as much objective or factual context as you can. This is about creating the scene to define your problem and challenge your thinking.

Example: Only 14% of workers have signed up to the new system. When asked, 86% of these found the sign-up process confusing.

Emotional context

For emotional problems, aim to build context that tries to define the environment or situation you’re in that frames the problem. Again, set the scene to describe the influences on your feelings.

Example: I have felt discontent with my career progression since I was promoted and found the position less that I’d hoped. I am struggling to build strong relationships with my co-workers, and have noted 4 times they have gone out for drinks without me.

Context that’s worth including in your Problem Statement

  • Factual information is really important, so include whatever you can.
  • Anything you can shift from a generalities to specifics is also useful – “we always do…” to “over the past month we have done x 4 times”.
  • Don’t worry if you struggle with setting context. Give yourself the time and space to invest in it.
  • Make sure the context is focused on the problem – try to avoid making it a catch-all shopping list!

2. Define the problem

Now we’ve gathered some context, we’re going to articulate the problem as clearly as possible. This will form the foundations for the rest of the problem statement.

To define the problem, we’re going to use the 5W’s approach. This looks at the who, what, where, when and why of the probel.

It’s a type of questioning that goes all the way back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. It’s a useful way of incorporating some rich texture into your problem statement. It breaks things down like this:

  • Who is affected by the problem?
  • What is the problem?
  • Where does this problem occur?
  • When does the problem occur?
  • Why does the problem occur? Why is the problem important?

By breaking it down in this way we’re building a clear picture of the problem (or opportunity), how it’s affecting people and why it’s happening.

3. Agree your approach to find a fix

Next, we’re going to put together a plan for how we intend to fix the problem. This is not about finding a solution, but more agreeing the approach you’re going to take to find the solution.

Why not jump to a solution?

The reason we’re not jumping to a solution yet is because it may well be we don’t know all the answers yet. What we do know is a) the context that surround the problem, and b) what the problem is.

So, the question is – what steps are we going to take to gain more information, build greater understanding and take the right approach to fix things.

For example, if your problem has highlighted that another person/team is preventing something happening, part of your approach is to explain the problem to them and brainstorm ideas.

Approach ideas for your Problem Statement

  • Who else is involved or has information you could talk to?
  • What information is missing that would be helpful to build more context?
  • If the problem was created by poor communication, how would your approach fix this?
  1. Bring your Problem Statement together

4. Bring your Problem Statement together

Now that we’ve built some context around our problem, put together our problem statement and agreed an approach to fix it, let’s pull it all together.

Use the template to start filling everything in, or use your own. You can download a PDF copy below.

Problem Statement Template

Work through each area of the problem statement template

  • Build the context and data around the problem.
  • Write your problem statement using the 5Ws.
  • Agree an approach you’re going to take to start solving the problem.

5. Turning your Problem Statement to action

So, now we’re developed our problem statement the next stages is to choose what to do about it. You might already have a good idea of how you want to go about fixing things, or you might feel a little overwhelmed at where to start.

If it’s the later, you can follow a three steps below to help you start taking the first steps towards addressing the problem.

The process I use with clients looks like this:

  1. Choose a direction of travel
  2. Pick the first three steps forward
  3. Pick three things to stop

Choose a direction of travel

All this means is making a commitment to where you’d like to aim. Your Problem Statement Approach should have already given you an idea of where this needs to be – so aim towards that.

You don’t need to develop a huge plan at this stage – just agree the direction you need to be heading in and what that, ultimately, might look like.

Pick the first three steps forward

The next stage is to choose the very first three steps you need to take to move in that direction. It’s useful because it helps break down larger goals into smaller parts, and means we focus only on the first few steps.

What are three, small steps you can take this week/month to help you move forwards?

Pick three things to stop

Finally, we’re going to choose three things to stop doing. Think of these as the anchors that are preventing you moving forwards. What, based on your reflections, are the things that will cause you to stumble or hold you in place. It’s critical that these are specific, achievable and ideally small (SMART goals). Make them too big or too broad and it’ll make them far harder to achieve.

That’s it!

You’ve followed the steps to build your own Problem Statement and a way forwards to start fixing it.

Example Problem Statement Template

To help you get started, I’ve put together an example you can start using today.

This article was originally written for The Pathfinder Coach.

Problem Statement Template

Use this template as a starting point for building your own Problem Statement.

Problem Statement Template

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 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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