Some things are deceivingly simple, yet powerful.
A problem statement is such a tool, which at first glance may seem rather basic, but on closer inspection, two aspects become clear:
- It is profoundly powerful
- It is not easy to get right
In this article, we will explore three things:
1) What is a problem statement?
2) Why should you use one, and when?
3) How do you use one effectively?
And lastly, as a bonus (4) I will share my own current problem statement as a practical example.
1) What is a problem statement?
When I joined McKinsey & Company in 2006 as a Junior Associate, the first thing that all consultants are asked to participate in is a training program called the Basic Consulting Readiness (BCR). It prepares the young consultant for the practical realities of facing and tackling problems, as efficiently and effectively as possible. The first foundational step in this training, and all the training and experience that will come over the years, is the humble problem statement.
A problem statement is a clear and concise articulation of the issue that you are trying to tackle.
When companies hire consultants, it is often to solve thorny problems with significant upside (or downside), where the impact of the right solution (vs a wrong one) is worth the millions of dollars in consultant fees. In such a context, you would think that they know what the problem is. Far from it. In my experience, 90% of strategy consulting projects do not come with a clear articulation of the problem. That’s actually not that surprising. Think of your own life. What is the single biggest problem you are trying to solve? And if you say, I don’t have any problems or that I have too many problems to pick one – I would say that in itself is a problem.
Defining a problem is more than half the effort of solving a problem. A good problem statement should be:
- Clear. If you read it today and then you read it a week later, it should convey the same meaning. It should leave no ambiguity on what you are trying to solve.
- Concise. At the start of every consulting engagement, there is a kick off meeting where the team gathers together for a 2-3 hour huddle, to get everyone on the same page right from the start. There is a single page that is the ideal end-product of this kick-off session, and at the very top of this single page template is a blank section to complete called the Problem Statement. It has space for approximately 3 lines, with the width of half a landscape sheet of paper. Roughly, 30-40 words. Not more.
- Constrained. The biggest issue that I have seen with problem statements is that they fail to restrict the issue to a manageable size. We all have problems, many of them. No denying that. But trying to solve everything at one go is the same as trying to solve nothing. There is a tendency to overcome this challenge of many problems by bundling all problems into one overarching problem. Don’t. Constrain it. This is about prioritizing. And once you prioritize, you can allocate all of your mind space and energy to the effort of solving that one problem.
2) Why should you use one, and when?
This is not an article for corporates. It is for you and me, to improve our lives and careers by using time-tested tools that have proved effective in various settings.
So then, who needs one?
There are two ways to lead your life – unaware and floating along with whatever life brings you OR being aware, and taking charge of your life and destiny. If you are in the second group, or would like to be, then you need to have a strategy for your life. To have a strategy for your life, start with a problem statement.
Therefore, I would say, everyone needs a problem statement. Would you really want to be sleep-walking through this one precious life, after all?
It is easier to figure out when to define a problem statement for a corporate or an organization. Typically, it is at the start of a project, major or minor. A group of people get together, and in order to create clarity on their collaborative efforts, they write down a statement about the problem they are trying to solve. At least, this is what happens in an ideal project in an ideal company.
In our personal and professional lives, as individuals, when should we use a problem statement? The answer is, you guessed it – always. You should always have a problem statement that is current. It should define that one overarching problem that you are tackling at this point in time.
At the heart of it, a problem statement is a tool for focus and clarity. Think of your precious resources – your time, energy, money – as a beam of light. You can choose to shine that beam of light on a vast and diffuse area, where that luminosity will disperse and be lost without much impact. However, if you were to choose that one specific area which is darkest and needs most light, you can most effectively shine the beam of light. It lights up that spot, and all is bright and clear. That is what the problem statement does.
Once you are done with it, you can move on. Problem statements certainly can, and should lose their relevance over time. Once solved, they should be discarded for a new one. When do you write up a new one?
There are many natural points in life where you could or should take a little time hovering above your own life, and those are ideal points to refine or refresh or start a new problem statement. Typically, these could be when you start a new phase in your life or when you have completed a goal, or when you are contemplating a change. It can be also be when you realize you don’t have a problem statement, or that the one you had till now is not serving you well enough. (Just be careful, if you find yourself discarding and starting new ones too frequently, it might be something you recognize as a pattern to observe and solve for)
Personally, I like to change my own problem statement in 3-month intervals. There is not really a science to this timeframe, but it works with the rhythm of my life. I have seen people effectively craft problem statements for 1 year (see related reading  below), or as short as 1 month. I would refrain from doing anything shorter than 1 month, and if you are closer to the one-month mark or shorter, it is typically a problem where you expect intense focus, and can dedicate sufficient time, effort and energy during this period.
3) How do you use a problem statement effectively?
If you have never used a problem statement in your life, for your own life, it can feel quite uncomfortable drafting one. Especially the first few times. Push through it. Anything becomes easier to do when you move from IF to HOW. ie. You stop questioning whether you should do something, and just get on with the act of doing it. Just do the first draft, and then…
Refine it. I would not normally advise to do this, especially once you have mastered the skill of articulating one. But in the beginning, until you are comfortable with it, refine it. Tweak it till it feels right, and it allows you the right context to solve the most challenging and impactful problem of your life.
Make sure the problem you are trying to solve is the most important thing in your life at this point in time.
Focus. For this specific period of time, this is the one problem you try to solve. Life is multi-faceted, and I am not asking to take your attention off of all other areas of your life. But hopefully, many areas of life will be in status-quo, not in upheaval or in need of change. They need time and energy, but not always the focused attention of the thinking mind. That focused attention of your thinking mind, point it like a laser on that one problem that you want to solve for a specified period of time.
4) A practical example
At the risk of this example being dated by the time you read this, let me share my current problem statement:
“How can I most efficiently and effectively build a body of creative work, that shares my knowledge with others in a way that is useful to them?”
I articulated this problem statement about 10 days ago, giving it a time duration of ~40 days: 5-February to 20-March.
As an illustration, lets test this problem statement:
- Is it clear? Yes. This is asking me to build an approach, which I need to do iteratively, so I will will build and refine an approach. It is also very clear on its goals, and why it needs to do those goals. And every day I read it, I interpret it exactly the same way.
- Is it concise? Yes. At 27 words, it is not verbose. While at the same time, covering the important aspects that I need to bear in mind
- Is it constrained? Yes. It is confined to one aspect of my life. Clearly, I will attend to many parts of life during the 40-day period, but this is the one that will use the most of my creative focus and resourcefulness.
Now, go on.
Do you have a problem statement for your life?
If yes, is it clear, concise and constrained?
If not, take a blank piece of paper, grab a pen and articulate the first draft of your problem statement. A problem statement that is clear, concise and constrained.
 The Accidental Creative Podcast by Todd Henry, Episode Dec 2021 gives 4 questions to ask yourself in 2022. The first of this, “What is my defining question?” is related to the concept of a problem statement for your life.
 The McKinsey 7-step problem solving process (podcast): This is best applied as-is in the context of a large corporation, but a good resource nevertheless. The first step of the seven steps involves defining the problem.