When a work project is stalling or just beginning, throwing around a flurry of possible solutions sounds like a good idea. “Try this, hold off on that, add more!” While a fire hose is effective for putting out literal fires, the approach of flooding figurative flames isn’t nearly as effective. In fact, it could actually kindle the fire. Nobody wants their business plan to go up in smoke. 

All metaphors aside, the key to solving an issue is to first clarify what exactly is wrong. One of the most effective ways to do this is with a problem statement. This allows you to take a look at an issue from all angles, then begin to address the specifics. 

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Consider the problem as a whole, not just individual failures.

What’s wrong?

What is a problem statement? As the name suggests, it details what a problem is. More specifically, it includes all facets of the issue and who is impacted by it. It also includes a proposed solution. Once you have the whole picture, you can then begin to refine the project. What shape should it take, what are the possible approaches?

The clearer the statement is, the more effective it will be. With one, team members can then narrow their focus on pain points and gaps, see what needs to happen first, and determine what they can and cannot change.

When to use a problem statement

Problem statements aren’t just for, well, problems. They can also be used to help a team better understand a project. Seeing the final objective, and the challenges to get there, can help shape their approach and planning.

It also helps give clarification and perspective. For example, what are you trying to accomplish long-term and how are you going to get there? Employees can see where they might be able to collaborate with others or how their contributions will fit.

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A clear statement helps your team stay focused.

Teams can refer to the problem statement throughout the project. This should help them stay on track and verify that they are heading toward the final objective. And ultimately, they can better evaluate if a proposed solution will work.

Writing a problem statement

A problem statement is not an opportunity to attack any individuals or processes. Instead, it is objectively noting what the goal/solution is, what the hang ups are and why the change needs to happen.

Learning how to write a problem statement that is effective allows you to bring an issue into focus. Before starting, answer five basic questions.

  • Who? Be specific about which problem or process needs solving.
  • What? Address costs, damage and other related issues.
  • When? Give a timeline to help employees stay focused.
  • How? Explain how a process should work and why it isn’t right now.
  • Why? Include both why the problem exists and why it needs to be solved.
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Customize the length and breadth of your problem statement to meet your needs.

Create an outline

There is no specific length or format required, but you can follow a general outline to make creating one easier. As a problem statement generator, consider brainstorming what issues you think might be detracting from your business. When you’ve pinpointed the culprit, start writing. 

State the problem: Your bakery, Hunger Grains, is steadily losing customers to newly opened Flour Power around the corner.

Background: In the past, customers have complained that Hunger Grains is often out of sourdough bread by mid-morning. Sourdough is the most popular bread at your bakery.

Root cause: Historically, you made enough — 136 loaves per day. Recent interest in the health benefits of sourdough have brought in more customers, but not everyday.

Objective: Bring customers back by offering enough loaves for everyone without regularly overbaking.

Importance: If you lose customer loyalty, you’ll need to reduce hours and cut back on workforce.

Now that your team understands the objective, they can come up with solutions: Bake bread throughout the day; offer par-baked bread as an option; offer a coupon if you’ve run out of bread. You can then choose which option might work well for your company.

Keepin’ it simple

Remember to keep your problem statement easily understandable for a wide audience. Avoid technical and overly complicated language. And, only refer to one problem; this helps your team stay focused. Talking about other problems, even if they’re similar, can divert their attention.

Learn more tips, from improving your business meetings to building employee morale, on the KSL Jobs Resource Center.