Problem Definition

The Tool and Why It’s Valuable

A well-defined problem is the focal point of your project and should be written with clear, concise language. This critical step helps ensure you mobilize the right resources and that you are working on a meaningful issue, not just an irritant. Writing a well-defined problem statement is the first step towards a successful project because a problem well-defined is a problem half solved!

How to Apply It

  1. Identify the consequences associated with not solving this issue
  2. Confirm this issue has been around – it is not just a one-time occurrence
  3. Write a clear, concise problem statement – not a solution statement.
    A good problem statement:
    • Identifies the issue
    • Includes supporting facts/data
    • Identifies the impact the issue has on the organization
  4. Know where the problem begins and ends – remember not to “boil the ocean”
  5. For additional help, complete the checklist on the next page to confirm you have a well-defined problem circuited the SOLVE model.
Pearls and Pitfalls

Example of a solution statement: We need to hire more FTE to staff the call center because of the number of calls

  • If your problem statement tries to address several issues or problems, this will cause confusion later and may be an indicator you are “boiling the ocean.”
  • If your problem statement contains the solution, you have short has increased.
  • Jumping into a project without confirming the problem could waste time and resources especially if it was a one irritant.
  • If you cannot clearly describe the problem, then you and others will struggle to solve it.

Problem Definition Checklist

Consider using the PROB checklist below to test your problem statement.

Does your problem statement conform?

P ain: I know the consequences of not addressing the issue (e.g. increased employee turnover due to overtime, lost funding).

R eal: This problem is not an anomaly; it has been acknowledged in the past by a number of people.

Obvious: The importance of the problem is clear to all who read it, even if they are not familiar with the situation.

B ound: I know where the problem begins and ends.

If you are able to answers these questions, then you have a solid foundation for proceeding to Scope the Opportunity.


  • Poorly defined problem: It takes forever for a contract to be executed
  • Well-defined problem: It takes an average of 150 days for a standard contract to go through our internal review and clearance process resulting in complaints from nearly 25% of our vendors.
  • Poorly defined problem: I had to rewrite the enrollment report 5 times this month. Well-defined problem: For the past year, on average we rewrite the enrollment report 4 times each month, requiring 15 extra hours (which makes me want to look for another job).

Albert Einstein once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

A well-defined problem often contains its own solution, and that solution often is obvious and straightforward. By defining problems properly, you make them

Source: Harvard Business Review, “Are You Solving the Right Problem?” by Dwayne