Effective Solutions Through Partnership

How to Use Problem Statements to Solve Project Issues

Best Practices, Issues and Risks, Problem Statements, Project Management, Project Management Professional (PMP)

By Stephen Alfano

Who doesn’t have problems? Now, a real question: Is there a simple, surefire, and quick way to break problems down?

Answer: Problem statements.

A problem statement is basically a short, yet compelling description of an issue, or set of issues, that must be resolved. It’s used by problem-solvers of all stripes—from research scientists to project managers to postgraduate students—to drive an effort from beginning to end to ensure and validate an anticipated outcome (not a problem with a well-written problem statement!).

How do you write a problem statement?

I recommend carefully breaking the problem—and the undesirable world it lives in—into three basic components:

  • Vision – This is the description of the anticipated (desired) outcome. Think of it as a view of the future with the changes that will result from the issue(s) being resolved.
  • Issue(s) – This is the description of the problem using a narrative derived from real-world experience (e.g., use cases or test results). It’s usually only a couple of sentences in length and straightforward and concise in tone and manner.
  • Method – This is the description of how the problem (and issues therein) will be resolved. It’s often prescriptive language—sometimes filled with jargon—that helps the problem-solvers map out their path to success.

Of course, there’s a great deal of background detail and mitigating factors that must be condensed to create those three basic components. (We’re talking about a scaling down a small mountain of data and accompanying data analysis into a couple of paragraphs.)

Truth be told, problem statements can be problematic. The input isn’t always neatly packaged. It often comes from structured and unstructured sources that need to be identified, categorized, prioritized and, in some cases, synthesized to establish the following:

  1. the root cause of the problem
  2. the known consequences of the issues that users (and key stakeholders) both up and downstream face
  3. the ill-effects associated with the known consequences
  4. the myriad assumptions and constraints (the pros and cons) within the method used to resolve the issues

Above all, problem statements require persistence and patience. Distilling and editing the content to be clear and concise takes rigorous work—and lots of practice using a tried and true template.

Below, you’ll find links to some of my favorite problem statement templates and best practices:

How do you think problem statements could help your project mitigate issues and achieve success?

About the Author: Stephen Alfano is an Organizational Change Management Consultant and Communications Expert. He has over 25 years of experience leading and managing internal and external marketing initiatives for both private and public-sector clients. His résumé includes providing both new business and business process improvement services to Apple, American Express, AT&T, California Department of Transportation, Chevron, Entergy, Levi Strauss & Co., Louisiana Office of Tourism, Mattel, Microsoft, Novell, SONY, Sutter Health, and Wells Fargo. Stephen currently works as an Executive Consultant with KAI Partners, Inc., providing change management and communications expertise and support services to California State Departments.

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