The power of a problem statement

Mar 18, 2015

When you work with clients in a consulting capacity, often, the most difficult part of a discussion is identifying the problem that needs attention.

An initial conversation with a client will typically start with a description of their current situation and illustrative examples. The client will provide additional situational context and then discuss what they think might be a solution. These conversations can be far reaching, interesting, helpful, insightful and yet lack clarity and focus.

When I find myself in this situation, I’ll ask the question “if we had to write a problem statement, what would it be?”. This question is a bit of a conversation stopper. The client will pause and often say “hmm that’s a good question”. Clients that I’ve worked with more than once will say “oh that question again”.

After a few minutes, the client begins to mull over a few phrases and after 2 or 3 efforts and sometimes through a collaborative effort, the problem description emerges. As an example: “our strategic plan says we are expanding our offerings into a new market segment but we do not have a product strategy”.

Once we can agree on a descripiton, we can talk about why it’s a problem and the impact of the problem. For example: “without a product strategy, we don’t know what we’re selling and we don’t know how we’re delivering it – which means we’re doing nothing'”.

There is nothing quite so effective at creating a lens on what it is that we need to address. Once the problem statement (description + why) is articulated, we can really focus in on the next steps. It may be research, a planning session, or a facilitated discussion. What ever the next step, the problem statement is always a powerful catalyst.

The problem statement is equally effective when pulling together a meeting agenda. How many times have you been invited to a meeting which is circular, directionless and without focus? After 45 minutes you just want to poke your eyes out with frustration.

By setting meeting context with a problem statement and following it with a genuine question, you can create an infintely higher quality discussion. For example: “we struggle to reconcile our cost numbers every month, which means we are constantly under time pressure and often issue reports with incorrect numbers. Our customers are at risk of making bad decisions. Do you see it differently?”

The next time you’re in one of those circular, unfocused meetings – ask the question… What is the problem statement? What are we trying to solve? Do others see it as problem? The problem statement is a powerful tool for creating clarity.

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