The problem with problems

At the kickoff meeting for any big project, there is a question so obvious that most of us don’t even think to ask it. We set deadlines and milestones, outline objectives, and shake hands confident we’re on the path to success. There’s just one problem.

We forgot to define the problem.

“What problem are we trying to solve” is an awkward question to ask in a kickoff meeting. We know there’s a problem. That’s why we’re here. But there is a huge difference between the existence of a problem and how you articulate it.

Problem framing is a useful way to gain alignment around describing and defining a problem statement before you go about solving it. It sounds simple, but distilling a complex problem down to an easy-to-articulate statement can provide clarity that can help define success on clear terms.

Essentially, you want to boil the problem down to its elements: What is the nature of the problem? Who is having the problem? Where does the problem surface? Why is the problem important? With these perspectives in mind, you can start to discover the clearest path forward.

Cause vs. effect

Solving problems is a lot like Rashomon: everyone can have a different perspective about what the problem actually is. Especially in a situation with multiple stakeholders, it’s easy to mistake a problem for one of its effects, rather than the source of the problem itself.

For example, if you’re having trouble communicating your value proposition to a specific audience, it might seem like a marketing problem. But those same issues could very well begin at the brand level, affecting multiple parts of the organization. Once multiple perspectives come together to share common experiences, you have more perspectives that can help shape a problem statement at the right altitude.

Succinct, common language

Another obstacle to problem solving is a matter of agreeing on the right way to express a problem. It’s tempting to express a problem comprehensively, to ensure a proposed solution addresses all possible angles. “Our typical customer journey is confusing and poorly designed, and our fulfillment center has trouble keeping up with demand, while customer support calls are spiking and causing long-term employees to quit.” That’s a problem, all right – it just happens to be a cascading combination of UX, logistics, customer support and employee retention problems.  Too often, we can get bogged down in an expression of a problem that in striving to be comprehensive, struggles to be precise.

You can spot a too-long problem statement from a mile away. It will read as a vague approximation of a problem statement, trying to do too much for any one project to solve. It is much more valuable to stay focused, specific, and actionable. For example, “Sales and marketing aren’t meeting their sales goals, customer support is overwhelmed, and our competitors are gaining market share” is a statement that outlines three effects that are masquerading as problems. “Our customers are frustrated by the gap between their expectations and product experiences” is better. A succinct, targeted problem statement can serve as a rallying cry that cuts to the essence of what you’re trying to solve.

Touchstone for success

A third key reason to frame a problem is to establish success criteria for how to solve it. Over the course of a project, you’re likely to chase down dead ends, find interesting subplots that don’t relate to the main objective, or run into other problem areas that intersect the one you’re investigating. In short, it can be easy to lose the thread.

Remember, the key elements of a problem statement help identify the who, what, where and why of the problem. A well-crafted problem statement can help keep all of those in mind. “Our customers are leaving because we aren’t telling the right story when they’re deciding between products” helps everyone keep their eyes on the prize.

A focused problem statement is a reminder of why you started the journey, and what your objectives are, no matter where the project leads. It’s a reminder to everyone to stay focused and follow the plot, a way of framing answers that directly answer the question you set out to ask.

A clear way forward

Problem framing is the art of asking the smart, focused questions at the beginning of a project. There are a host of strategies to coax a compelling problem statement for every kind of organization. If you’re interested in hearing more about how to set up your next project for success, your expert Northbound problem framers are just a click away.



Craig Motlong | Strategy Director

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