What Is a Problem Statement & How to Effectively Create One

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Key takeaways
  • A problem statement is a tool used in project management to describe any issue or problem that arises during project execution.
  • An effective problem statement highlights a specific problem, communicates its overall impact, and offers a solution.
  • The typical problem statement touches on the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, and why.

Rarely does a project get completed without any issues, but knowing that there’s an issue to address isn’t enough to gain the support of stakeholders. Project managers rely on a well-crafted problem statement to get the ball rolling. Now what is a problem statement?

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What Is a Problem Statement?

A problem statement serves as a tool that allows project managers to describe the various obstacles and challenges faced during the project lifecycle. Not only does this help keep the entire project organized, but it also helps key stakeholders understand these problems in a way that makes sense to them.

A good problem statement highlights a specific problem, communicates its overall impact, and offers a solution. It describes gaps, obstacles, or challenges that need to be overcome during the project lifecycle.

Project managers depend on the problem statement to gain the support and approval of key stakeholders, so it is crucial that it is written properly.

How to Write an Effective Problem Statement

There is no tried and true method of crafting the perfect problem statement in project management, but there are general strategies to keep in mind. Here are tips to guide you through the process of writing a problem statement.

1. Examine the problem thoroughly

The entire process of writing a problem statement begins by identifying the problem to be solved—but this alone isn’t enough. Take some time to thoroughly examine the problem at hand. Some common methods include:

  • Collecting any necessary or relevant data
  • Interviewing project stakeholders
  • Brainstorming with teammates
  • Researching similar issues

Remember, you’ll want to gain a full understanding of the problem, including its root cause or causes, before moving onto the next step in the process.

2. Begin drafting the problem statement

An effective problem statement can only be written once you fully understand the problem you’re trying to solve. In this step, you’ll want to describe it as clearly as possible. While it’s important to be concise, it’s even more important that you describe the problem in its entirety. Failure to do so can affect your chances of getting the support you need to address it.

Most problem statements for project management are structured in a similar format. They generally begin with an introduction to the problem, followed by pertinent background information and the overall scope of the project. It then proceeds to describe the objectives, the importance of the problem, project or problem constraints, any attempted solutions, success criteria, a list of required resources, and a general timeline of activities. It should also include a risk analysis, a project management term that refers to the process of determining the likelihood of a risk occurring.

If you’re unsure where to start,or how to format your problem statement, feel free to use our problem statement template.

3. Clarify the potential consequences if the problem isn’t solved

Don’t forget to outline the potential consequences, in as much detail as possible, if the problem isn’t solved. As previously stated, failure to adequately explain this to your project stakeholders will affect their decision. If they cannot see the severity of the issue, they won’t be willing to allocate time and resources to solve it. In order to gain the full support of project stakeholders, teammates, and anyone who reads the problem statement, it’s vital that you highlight the potential consequences if the problem remains unaddressed.

4. Propose a solution for the problem

Finish your problem statement by proposing a long-term solution. If you don’t have a specific solution in mind, don’t hesitate to ask for input from your teammates or even the major stakeholders themselves. Their recommendations and advice will allow you to look at the problem from various perspectives.

How to Polish Up Your Problem Statement

Depending on your experience writing problem statements, you might need to spend some time polishing up your draft. Double-check for spelling or grammatical mistakes, as these could be off-putting to the readers, and make sure everything is formatted consistently throughout.

Finally, you might consider adding a bias assessment table to your problem statement. This simple table can go a long way in eliminating potential bias and ensuring an adequate solution to the problem. For some guidance, refer to our sample bias assessment table below:

DescriptionQuestions to ConsiderActionable Steps If “Yes”Actionable Steps If “No”
Seeking information that confirms preconceptions or beliefs.Does the problem statement focus only on evidence that supports a particular viewpoint? Are alternative perspectives considered?Encourage exploration of alternative viewpoints and evidence.Conduct further research to identify and incorporate alternative perspectives.
Relying too heavily on the first piece of information encountered.Is the problem statement influenced by initial assumptions or information? Is there sufficient exploration of other possibilities?Challenge initial assumptions and seek diverse sources of information.Review and gather additional information from multiple sources to broaden perspective.
Overestimating the importance of information readily available.Are certain aspects of the problem statement given more weight simply because they are easily recalled or accessible?Seek out additional information and consider a variety of sources to ensure a comprehensive understanding.Conduct a thorough review of available information to identify any overlooked or less accessible data.
Overestimating one’s own abilities or the accuracy of one’s knowledge.Is there an acknowledgment of uncertainties or limitations in understanding the problem? Are assumptions clearly stated?Encourage humility and open-mindedness in evaluating the problem statement. Seek feedback from others to validate assumptions and conclusions.Conduct a critical review of assumptions and seek input from experts or stakeholders to identify potential blind spots.
Going along with group consensus to avoid conflict or maintain harmony.Does the problem statement reflect diverse perspectives and encourage critical thinking? Is there a tendency to conform to group opinions?Facilitate open discussion and encourage dissenting viewpoints. Seek input from individuals outside the immediate group to challenge assumptions.Conduct a review of the problem statement with a focus on encouraging diverse perspectives and independent thinking.
Making assumptions based on stereotypes or generalizations.Are there any assumptions about individuals or groups that could lead to biased interpretations of the problem?Challenge stereotypes and seek to understand the unique characteristics and perspectives of individuals or groups involved.Conduct interviews or surveys to gather diverse perspectives and validate assumptions about individuals or groups.
Giving undue weight to the opinions or decisions of authority figures.Are there instances where the problem statement relies too heavily on the opinions of certain individuals without considering alternative viewpoints?Encourage input from a variety of sources and challenge the status quo. Seek independent validation of conclusions from multiple stakeholders.Conduct a review of the problem statement with a focus on identifying and mitigating reliance on authority figures.
Attributing success or failure to internal or external factors based on personal biases.Are there biases present in how success or failure is attributed within the problem statement?Evaluate the problem statement objectively and consider multiple factors when attributing success or failure. Seek input from stakeholders to gain diverse perspectives.Conduct a review of the problem statement with a focus on identifying and addressing biases in attributing success or failure.
Judging a decision based on the outcome rather than the quality of the decision-making process.Is there a tendency to evaluate the problem statement based on desired outcomes rather than the validity of the problem-solving approach?Focus on evaluating the problem-solving process and decision-making criteria independently of the outcome. Seek feedback and input from stakeholders to validate the decision-making process.Conduct a review of the problem-solving process with a focus on identifying and addressing biases related to outcome evaluation.

What Are the 5 Ws That Make Up a Problem Statement?

If you find it difficult to draft the ideal problem statement, it is best to take a journalistic approach to the process. Journalists are often searching for problems to solve, and many of them utilize the 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. Here’s how you can apply it in writing a problem statement.

Who

For the purposes of a problem statement, the who refers to the entity that is causing the problem at hand. Depending on your project, this could be any of the following:

  • Current of future customers
  • The general public
  • Teammates
  • Stakeholders

It’s also important to remember that the “who,” in this case, doesn’t necessarily have to be a person. It could also be a specific office or workplace, a point-of-sale device, or virtually any other resource that falls under the responsibility of the project manager.

What

In most cases, the “what” of a problem goes hand-in-hand with the “who.” Consider a data analysis project that depends on the availability of your company’s internet access. If the server is unavailable when it’s needed, then the “who” is considered the company’s server. Conversely, the “what” would be the server’s lack of accessibility. Although it might be rather simple to identify the “what” of your problem, it is still a crucial step that shouldn’t be ignored.

When

As the name implies, this component is concerned with the problem’s overall timeline or, more specifically, when the problem is actually occurring. To continue with the internet outage example above, it’s quite possible that you were knocked offline due to a hiccup in your connection with the internet service provider (ISP). If the problem happens repeatedly, however, or if there aren’t any reported outages in your area, then the problem might be with your hardware, software, or the wiring in the building.

Where

This step describes where the problem is occurring. If it is just a simple hiccup with the internet connection, the “where” would be considered your ISP. But what if the problem is actually limited to one or two user workstations? In this case, the “where” would be the affected workstations. If there’s faulty wiring in your office that’s to blame, the “where” would be the office and possibly your entire building.

Why

In a project management setting, this step highlights why it’s important to solve the problem. It is already expected that in a typical project life cycle, numerous risks and issues may arise, so why is this one so important? Why should this problem be prioritized above any others?

Answering the “why” of a problem is crucial to gaining the support of everyone involved. Even if they understand the underlying issue, they might not realize the benefits of solving that particular problem. Letting them know how it benefits them and the organization as a whole can go a long way.

Example Problem Statement

While we provided a generic problem statement template above, feel free to refer to our example problem statement for further guidance. Although your statement doesn’t necessarily have to contain every one of these sections, it needs to have enough pieces of information to describe the problem clearly and completely. In our example, we’ll continue with the hypothetical internet service outage.

Problem statement: Our entire workspace is unable to access the internet, which is needed to access the data we have stored on the cloud.

Background: Apart from the occasional hiccup, this has never been an issue during office hours. In this case, however, we’ve been without internet access for two hours and counting.

Scope: There’s only so much we can do internally, like restarting hardware, checking for updates, verifying wired connections, and scanning for viruses. Any further remedies would require the assistance of our ISP and, depending on the severity, an on-site visit from a service technician.

Objective: Not only do we need to restore our internet access, but we should investigate solutions to prevent this from happening in the future.

Importance: Our entire company depends on the data hosted on our cloud-based servers, so it’s crucial that we restore internet access as quickly as possible.

Constraints: Since we’ve already been without internet access for two hours, we only have a few hours left in the workday. If we don’t come up with a solution soon, we’ll have to delay it until tomorrow.

Current solutions/attempts: We’ve already checked for software updates, verified wired connections, and restarted our workstations.

Proposed approach: We should contact our ISP to find out if there are any reported outages in our area. If not, and if they can‘t resolve the issue remotely, we will need to schedule a visit from a service technician.

Success criteria: The success of our project depends on our internet being fully restored for the entire team.

Resources required: We’ll need an individual to contact our ISP. If a service visit is necessary, we’ll also need someone who is available to meet the service technician when they arrive and answer any questions they may have.

Timeline: Having our internet service restored is top priority. While we’d prefer to have the issue resolved before the end of the day, we can make arrangements—like working remotely—until the problem is fixed.

Conclusion: We’ve already spent two hours of the day without internet. It’s imperative that our service is restored as soon as possible so that we can access our cloud servers and resume operations as normal. If the problem isn’t fixed by the end of the day, we may need to assign our staff to remote roles until our internet access is restored in the office.

Bottom Line

Problem statements make it easy for yourself, your teammates, and project stakeholders to understand specific problems. But since all projects are different, it’s critical that you frame the issue in a way that is both accessible and easily understood by your peers, or else, you run the risk of losing their support altogether.

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