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Understanding the problem is the first step of any problem-solving effort. Clearly defining the problem statement before jumping into "solutioning" will allow for proper bounds on the problem and drive toward the highest value solution. In this day and age, when time equals money, it is observed that many organizations do not apply the necessary rigor and discipline to identify the right problem at the onset. This leads to missed opportunities to address the underlying strategic issues. 

In addition to better understanding the problem, understanding the impacts on the system is equally important at this stage. Having a well-defined problem statement while understanding the overall impact on the system will help determine the amount of effort one might put forth in a solution. This can also help with prioritizing solutions across a system in terms of which problems are causing the most havoc at a given time. The better a problem is understood, the more likely its severity can be determined, the root cause addressed and a worthwhile, sustainable solution created. This is also integral in developing countermeasures to make sure the problem will not reoccur.

Why is solving the right problem important to consultants?

As consultants for custom software, clients generally come requesting help to implement a "thing." Fully defined or loosely defined, there is usually a "thing." When presented with actions to take with little understanding -- if any at all -- of the problem to be solved, there is a risk of solving the wrong problem. It would behoove all parties to dig deeper into the client's problem and why this particular action is thought to address the problem. There is value to identifying and verifying the problem statement of any contract prior to jumping on board with the defined feature set of the "thing" to implement.

Maybe there is not much room to change the defined action/feature list. Either the client is very tied to these details, or too much planning/contract negotiation has occurred to do any major pivot. That's OK! There are still some opportunities to review, validate and truly seek to understand the problem statement and make small recommendations as they become obvious during development.

One thing consultants have that is unique from the client is a different perspective. The client lives and breathes their organization: their challenges and successes, their systems and processes. Still, consultants have the advantage of a fresh perspective, one that can capitalize on asking why just a few more times.

What happens if we solve the wrong problem?

Not taking the time to identify and disseminate an accurate problem statement increases the risk of solving only the symptom without resolving the root cause. The problem will only manifest itself differently within the system. Not solving the client's problem -- even if perfectly delivered on their expectations -- means the desired outcome was not achieved. Therefore, it benefits all parties to start with the right problem statement that everybody agrees with and understands.

How to identify the right problem

There are many ways to determine the right problem to solve. Here is a shortlist to consider. Beyond the technique or method used to identify a problem statement, the main point is that it's important to put effort toward accurately identifying it.

Understand what's below the iceberg

Most problems manifest themselves as symptoms, not the actual problem. Imagine the symptom as the tip of the iceberg. The tip is on the surface and is easy to see and explore, but the majority of the iceberg exists below the waterline. In this way, often our initial focus is on the easy-to-describe symptoms and not the hidden root cause buried within our systems and processes.

Explicitly state all assumptions used to define the problem statement 

Even the simplest of problems are based on a long list of assumptions. Not all assumptions will be valid and can make the problem definition inaccurate, leading to solutions for a misguided problem. So how do you get rid of those bad assumptions? List all assumptions, no matter how foundational or obvious they may seem. Then validate them one by one, being honest on where an assumption came from or why the assumption exists. It may be surprising to find that many bad assumptions are self-imposed, and only when removed can innovation truly happen. More importantly, an accurate list of assumptions creates assurance that the problem statement has the proper bounds and clarity to drive toward better outcomes.

Reframing the problem by looking at it from a different perspective

Reframing or rephrasing a problem can allow for different solutions/ideas to be identified. Looking at a problem from multiple perspectives will help ensure the problem is being captured holistically. Consultants have the unique ability to bring a different perspective to a problem. Beyond that, think about how the user or perhaps a vendor would talk about the problem. These different perspectives will drive solutions that may not otherwise be identified.

5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a technique used in the "Analyze" phase of the Six Sigma DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology. This is an easy technique to apply when searching for the root cause of an identified symptom. While it may not actually take five whys to get to the root of the problem, the point is that simply asking why something happened can be a powerful tool to identify the underlying problem. Solutions to a root cause will have more sustained results and more impact on the overall health of a system.

In discovering the right problem, it may also be found that a single effect can be the result of multiple causes, or conversely, a single cause can have multiple effects on a system.

Identifying a course of action

Once there is an understanding of the right problem, determining the right course of action is the next step. While identifying the right problem might be half the battle, finding the right course of action is not easy either. Likely, there will be more than one viable solution to a problem, including doing nothing at all. In this case, it will be imperative to figure out the best way to test, analyze and discover which solutions would have the highest potential impact on the overall system. Each option becomes a hypothesis as to how it will really impact the problem.

  • Are there any low effort high reward options?
  • Are there any that might offer a short-term benefit while a longer-term action is being implemented?

No matter the decided route, it will be important to measure the results to make sure the action is having a positive impact on the problem.

Defining measures for that action

Every problem needs some defined action to drive change, and every action needs a way to determine its impact on the problem. This can be achieved through the use of success criteria. Ultimately, to determine if the solution is a success we need to be able to measure changes in place to determine the impacts quantitatively on the system, which will verify any positive effect on the original problem. Without measurement, it will be impossible to know if the changes to the system are having a positive or negative effect on the system. It will also be impossible to verify the problem does not creep back into the system in the future. Ideally, there will be two types of measurements that should be considered when defining success criteria.

Outcome measure

How is it proven that the solution achieved the expected results? What will we measure to determine the impact of a given solution on the problem? The answer to these questions will become the outcome measure(s).

For example, say the problem is manifesting itself in employee productivity going down. The goal is to restore employee productivity to the levels it was three months ago. The desired outcome is a change in employee productivity, so employee productivity is the outcome measure.

Supporting balance measures

How is it proven there is not a negative impact to a related portion of the system? How is it known that any action does not cause problems in other places within the organization? The answers to these questions become the supporting balance measure(s).

For example, a supporting balance metric may be that process costs do not increase as there is a focus to increase employee productivity.

A solution should positively impact an outcome measure, while not disrupting supporting balance measures. By doing this, a sustainable solution as defined by the success criteria will be achieved.


There is value in explicitly defining the problem statement that a solution is built to address. Putting in up-front due diligence to identify the right problem will ultimately lead to more focused and higher impact actions. Measuring the problem in quantitative terms allows for validation that the solution is making a positive impact on the system and can better ensure more sustained outcomes.