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Effective problem statements have these 5 components
We’ve all encountered problems on the job. After all, that’s what a lot of work is about. Solving meaningful problems to help improve something.
Developing a problem statement that provides a brief description of an issue you want to solve is an important early step in problem-solving.
It sounds deceptively simple. But creating an effective problem statement isn’t that easy, even for a genius like Albert Einstein. Given one hour to work on a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes finding solutions. (Or so the story goes.)
Einstein was probably exaggerating to make a point. But considering his success in solving complex problems, we think he was on to something.
As humans, we’re wired to jump past the problem and go directly to the solution stage. In emergencies, this behavior can be lifesaving, as in leaping out of the way of a speeding car. But when dealing with longer-range issues in the workplace, this can lead to bad decisions or half-baked solutions.
That’s where problem statements come in handy. They help to meaningfully outline objectives to reach effective solutions. Knowing how to develop a great problem statement is also a valuable tool for honing your management skills.
But what exactly is a problem statement, when should you use one, and how do you go about writing one? In this article, we'll answer those questions and give you some tips for writing effective problem statements. Then you'll be ready to take on more challenges large and small.
What is a problem statement?
First, let’s start by defining a problem statement.
What is a problem statement?
A problem statement is a short, clear explanation of an issue or challenge that sums up what you want to change. It helps you, team members, and other stakeholders to focus on the problem, why it’s important, and who it impacts.
A good problem statement should create awareness and stimulate creative thinking. It should not identify a solution or create a bias toward a specific strategy.
Taking time to work on a problem statement is a great way to short-circuit the tendency to rush to solutions. It helps to make sure you’re focusing on the right problem and have a well-informed understanding of the root causes. The process can also help you take a more proactive than reactive approach to problem-solving. This can help position you and your team to avoid getting stuck in constant fire-fighting mode. That way, you can take advantage of more growth opportunities.
When to use a problem statement
The best time to create a problem statement is before you start thinking of solutions. If you catch yourself or your team rushing to the solution stage when you’re first discussing a problem, hit the brakes. Go back and work on the statement of the problem to make sure everyone understands and agrees on what the real problem is.
Here are some common situations where writing problem statements might come in handy:
- Writing an executive summary for a project proposal or research project
- Collaborating on a cross-functional project with several team members
- Defining the customer issue that a proposed product or service aims to solve
- Using design thinking to improve user experience
- Tackling a problem that previous actions failed to solve
How to identify a problem statement
Like the unseen body of an iceberg, the root cause of a specific problem isn’t always obvious. So when developing a problem statement, how do you go about identifying the true, underlying problem?
- Collect information from the research and previous experience with the problem
- Talk to multiple stakeholders who are impacted by the problem
People often perceive problems differently. Interviewing stakeholders will help you understand the problem from diverse points of view. It can also help you develop some case studies to illustrate the problem.
Combining these insights with research data will help you identify root causes more accurately. In turn, this methodology will help you craft a problem statement that will lead to more viable solutions.
What are problem statements used for?
You can use problem statements for a variety of purposes. For an organization, it might be solving customer and employee issues. For the government, it could be improving public health. For individuals, it can mean enhancing their own personal well-being. Generally, problem statements can be used to:
- Identify opportunities for improvement
- Focus on the right problems or issues to launch more successful initiatives – a common challenge in leadership
- Help you communicate a problem to others who need to be involved in finding a solution
- Serve as the basis for developing an action plan or goals that need to be accomplished to help solve the problem
- Stimulate thinking outside the box and other types of creative brainstorming techniques
3 examples of problem statements
When you want to be sure you understand a concept or tool, it helps to see an example. There can also be some differences in opinion about what a problem statement should look like. For instance, some frameworks include a proposed solution as part of the problem statement. But if the goal is to stimulate fresh ideas, it’s better not to suggest a solution within the problem statement.
In our experience, an effective problem statement is brief, preferably one sentence. It’s also specific and descriptive without being prescriptive.
While these examples represent three types of problems or goals, keep in mind that there can be many other types of problem statements.
Problem Statement #1: The Status Quo Problem Statement
Example: The average customer service on-hold time for XYZ company exceeds five minutes during both its busy and slow seasons.
This can be used to describe a current pain point within an organization that may need to be addressed. Note that the statement specifies that the issue occurs during the company’s slow time as well as the busy season. This is helpful in performing the root cause analysis and determining how this problem can be solved.
Problem Statement #2: The Destination Problem Statement
Example: Leaders at XYZ company want to increase net revenue for its premium product line of widgets by 5% for the next fiscal year.
This approach can be used to describe where an organization wants to be in the future. This type of problem statement is useful for launching initiatives to help an organization achieve its desired state.
Like creating SMART goals, you want to be as specific as possible. Note that the statement specifies “net revenue” instead of “gross revenue." This will help keep options open for potential actions. It also makes it clear that merely increasing sales is not an acceptable solution if higher marketing costs offset the net gains.
Problem Statement #3 The Stakeholder Problem Statement
Example: In the last three quarterly employee engagement surveys, less than 30% of employees at the XYZ company stated that they feel valued by the company. This represents a 20% decline compared to the same period in the year prior.
This strategy can be used to describe how a specific stakeholder group views the organization. It can be useful for exploring issues and potential solutions that impact specific groups of people.
Note the statement makes it clear that the issue has been present in multiple surveys and it's significantly worse than the previous year. When researching root causes, the HR team will want to zero in on factors that changed since the previous year.
What are the 5 components of a problem statement?
In developing a problem statement, it helps to think like a journalist by focusing on the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why or how. Keep in mind that every statement may not explicitly include each component. But asking these questions is a good way to make sure you’re covering the key elements:
- Who: Who are the stakeholders that are affected by the problem?
- What: What is the current state, desired state, or unmet need?
- When: When is the issue occurring or what is the timeframe involved?
- Where: Where is the problem occurring? For example, is it in a specific department, location, or region?
- Why: Why is this important or worth solving? How is the problem impacting your customers, employees, other stakeholders, or the organization? What is the magnitude of the problem? How large is the gap between the current and desired state?
How do you write a problem statement?
There are many frameworks designed to help people write a problem statement. One example is outlined in the book, The Conclusion Trap: Four Steps to Better Decisions,” by Daniel Markovitz. A faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute, the author uses many case studies from his work as a business consultant.
To simplify the process, we’ve broken it down into three steps:
1. Gather data and observe
Use data from research and reports, as well as facts from direct observation to answer the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why.
Whenever possible, get out in the field and talk directly with stakeholders impacted by the problem. Get a firsthand look at the work environment and equipment. This may mean spending time on the production floor asking employees questions about their work and challenges. Or taking customer service calls to learn more about customer pain points and problems your employees may be grappling with.
2. Frame the problem properly
A well-framed problem will help you avoid cognitive bias and open avenues for discussion. It will also encourage the exploration of more options.
A good way to test a problem statement for bias is to ask questions like these:
Does the problem appear to have only one possible solution?
Look for ways to rephrase it to open up more possibilities.
Does the statement describe a symptom instead of the problem?
Dig deeper for the root cause.
Does the statement suggest the problem is that you don’t have enough time, money, or people?
Find a way to pose the problem that will lead to more creative solutions.
Does the problem statement lack an obvious solution?
Great! You’re probably ready to start exploring solutions.
Does the statement stimulate brainstorming and discussion?
Good job! Keep the discussion going by asking why.
3. Keep asking why (and check in on the progress)
When it comes to problem-solving, stay curious. Lean on your growth mindset to keep asking why — and check in on the progress.
Asking why until you’re satisfied that you’ve uncovered the root cause of the problem will help you avoid ineffective band-aid solutions.
When solving any sort of problem, there’s likely a slew of questions that might arise for you. In order to holistically understand the root cause of the problem at hand, your workforce needs to stay curious.
At BetterUp, this idea of continuous improvement hinges on curiosity. We know organizations everywhere are grappling with tough, complex challenges. From economic uncertainty and laying off employees to hiring freezes, change is constant.
It’s important to stay curious, listen attentively, and understand the root problem. By scraping the surface of a problem, you’re not going to effectively solve it.
An effective problem statement creates the space you and your team need to explore, gain insight, and get buy-in before taking action.
If you have embarked on a proposed solution, it’s also important to understand that solutions are malleable. There may be no single best solution. Solutions can change and adapt as external factors change, too. It’s more important than ever that organizations stay agile. This means that interactive check-ins are critical to solving tough problems. By keeping a good pulse on your course of action, you’ll be better equipped to pivot when the time comes to change.
BetterUp can help. With access to virtual coaching, your people can get personalized support to help solve tough problems of the future.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.