The Problem with Problem Statements

Things I wish I had said:

The secret to success is to get your arms around a problem and knock it off ~ Anon

Worse than not saying it myself is the fact that I don’t entirely know who did say it, but we shouldn’t dwell on my failings.

On a more positive note, quotes that I can attribute include:

A problem well stated is a problem half solved ~ Charles F. Kettering

(If I had sixty minutes to save the world) I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution ~ Albert  Einstein

Poorly structured logic

I shouldn’t base a logical argument on a bunch of quotes, but take the mental leap with me, it is clear that being able to define a problem well is a skill worth having in life.

Which leads to the question…

How do you define a problem?

I have had a good look on Google, but I am afraid it all becomes a bit woolly and vague, let me give you a summary of the top 8 tips:

1. Chunk the problem down:

Some problems are just a little too difficult.  If you can split them up you stand more chance.  Putting a man on the moon is a big ask, a sensible problem to start with might be: how do you put a dog into space?

2. Chunk the problem up:

Some problems aren’t really the problem; you should find the bigger problem you need to solve.  Is the problem that you need to go to the gym?  Or is it really that you want to live a long and healthy life?

In which case maybe you should chunk the problem back down and stop smoking.

I do hope this is becoming clear

3. Get specific:

Get the facts and write them down.  Problems are rarely “always”, “everywhere” and “everybody”.

If in doubt about the facts go and look at the problem (there is no better way)

4. Be explicit:

Expose the assumptions, ask what they are and the write them down.  Make them as explicit as possible and then you can challenge them.

Trite but true: if you “assume” you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.  (My 9-year-old daughter told me that).

5. Follow the formula:

A problem statement should have an object and a defect; it should not contain a solution, otherwise it wouldn’t be a problem would it? (see below)

6. State the pain:

If the problem is “we need a bandage” then technically that is a solution looking for a problem.  Solutions looking for problems are very expensive things (usually involving multi million pound IT investments)

Write down where it hurts, not that you need a bandage.  P.S. You can do this by following the formula. (see above)

7. Tell me what the problem isn’t:

Write down all the things that aren’t the problem, “everybody is late” and “everybody is late except Tony and Sue” are two very different propositions to deal with.

It is best to do this with things that are closely related to what the problem is, or you could go on for a very long time.

8. Rephrase the problem:

How you state a problem determines how they interpret it:

  • “Ways to increase productivity” sounds like job cutting
  • “Ways to make our work easier” sounds like knocking off early.

I guess you will get more traction with the latter

The problem with writing problem statements

All of this is sound advice, but none of it is very definitive.  There aren’t any golden rules.

How about this as a sense check?  If you honestly think that if you can:

Get your arms around [insert your problem statement here] and knock it off

Then you might just be successful in life.  Unfortunately that is kind of where we started.

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 Bit of a Problem

Read another opinion

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  1. Hi James,
    A wise colleague of mine once told me a story of an old colleague of his which went: If you can’t draw it then you don’t understand it.


  2. Another one to add, is paying obsessive attention to any patterns regarding when and where the problem happens. A pattern spotted at the definition stage can make the difference between some very challenging problem solving and a completely self-evident solution. As one of my workmates often used to say “let looking replace thinking”. I’ve noticed that many people are much more comfortable theorising than observing (carefully) and watching what is really happening. It’s careful observation that is the hallmark of all the best problem solvers I’ve met.

  3. Hello James

    I say that you have to live with the problem so that you get a feel for the problem, that you become intimate with it, that you see it in its fullness – in terms of breadth, width and how it plays out over time.

    Furthermore, I say it is not so much the definition of the problem that matters as much as who cares enough to grapple/wreste with the problem.

    Finally, I say it is more effective to focus on what you want rather than what you do not want.


    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for your comments Maz, I particularly like the last one, “it is far more effective to focus on what you want than what you don’t”. I guess the world would be a far better place if we all took that to heart.


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