The Power of the Problem Statement
Working with problem statements will unleash creative thinking like no other. Make sure you use them in your next brainstorm or meeting.
At a recent offsite I facilitated we used problem statements to help identify where we could improve as a team. The great thing about problem statements is that they’re simple to understand and a great way to kick start ideation and problem solving.
So what is a problem statement?
It can be a simple one line sentence or short paragraph that explains in plain english a problem that is impacting on your business, project or user. They are best written by stating the problem and the impact it is causing. The impact helps give people a wider understanding of how big, small or important the problem is.
Here’s an example from a recent offsite I ran where we focused on the tooling we use as an operational team:
“We have a zoo of tools, platforms and templates. We lack an agreed suite of tools that are a mandatory ‘must use’. We aren’t clear on what tools should be used and why. We don’t train on tools, instead expecting people to self-learn. We are too lax in letting people use tools of personal preference. We use too many tools that do roughly the same thing”.
Our inconsistent approach to tooling, platform usage and templates means we:
- Suffer from status anxiety. ‘WHAT’S THE LATEST UPDATE?!’
- Deliver variable quality of work.
- Waste time in getting colleagues up to speed every time we meet.
- Have work falling through the cracks as decisions are shared via menagerie of platforms.
- Stakeholder frustration as colleagues feel out of the loop or confused.
What do you notice about the above example?
Well, firstly it feels very raw. The whole point of a problem statement is to encourage teams to let rip and spill their guts over problems that might have been building for a while. You should have heard some of the others we came up with.
Secondly the problem statement has multiple components. It’s up to you how singular you go with a problem but it’s always a good idea to flesh out various parts of a problem.
Okay. So you want to craft your own problem statements. Where do you start?
- Keep it raw & succinct
Let your team gush over problem statements. Many will find it cathartic just expressing themselves. I find the best approach is to get one or two people to craft a strawman statement for the team to help react to, validate and ratify.
2. Gather evidence
When promoting a problem statement have examples up your sleeve. It’s hard to land your problem if you don’t have tangible examples to hand when put on the spot. Have evidence to back up the claims and especially impacts you’re making in your problem statements.
3. Clap it out 👏
At our offsite we asked attendees to clap if they agreed with what they heard as we read our problem statements out aloud. If it’s a user problem then speak to them and see if they recognise the problem as you’ve described it. Then it’s all down to refining the statement so it works in the real world. You might find that what you perceived as a problem is either non-existent or different outside your own bias.
4. Prioritise if up to your neck in problems
In our workshop we had 4 problems. They were big, but we still only had 4. Even then we had to prioritise.
How you prioritise is up to you but think about impact and also effort in problem resolution. You can do this via a card sort exercise where you simply arrange your problem statements in order of priority. By rating them against a set of factors including cost, business benefit and ease of execution you should be able to plot out your high to low priorities.
Don’t forget prioritisation often means ditching some things, so be brutal.
5. Ideate your way to success
Grab your problem statement and start to brainstorm solution. Remember the ‘no idea is a bad idea’ mantra. You might want to re-frame how you think about your problem using a ‘re-framing’ exercise. See below:
Reframing a problem (Courtesy of HBR)
6. Re-visit your problem statements regularly
Once you have some ideas execute them. Then re-visit your original problem statement and see whether it still stacks up. Hopefully by coming up with genius solutions you should be able to say the problem has gone.
Now onto the next problem…