A crucial skill in communication and in business generally is being able to clearly define problems or opportunities before you act. This skill is harder and more important than it might appear.
Experts from the MIT Sloan School of Management say being able to clearly define problems is the most under-rated skill in management. Their view is certainly consistent with the saying, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”
When confronted with problems, needs, issues or opportunities to be addressed in a campaign or your annual plan it is important you clearly define them so you can create the best solutions. The clarity of thought and direction created by the problem statement/s goes a long way to an effective communication project or program. If you don’t define them clearly, your response may be fuzzy and superficial.
Saves time and disagreements later
The problems or issues may seem obvious initially, but quite often later they may prove to be complex, with several interrelated causes, so you will want to ensure you have got to their core. Therefore when you clearly define a problem at the start of the process you will save time and arguments later when considering the intended outcomes and strategy.
Arguments may arise because individual viewpoints are colored by the nature of the problem as it affects their area. For instance, interdepartmental committee representatives might be motivated by other reasons such as trying to minimize paying their fair share of the budget for the ensuing project. Those people will try to impose their point of view on the rest of the group, but might only address part of the problem. Thus it is important to reach agreement on the core problem. And it is important to document that agreement to reduce possible later fights about who was on board.
How to clearly define problems
The MIT Sloan researchers believe clearly defined problem or need statements have 5 basic elements:
- They relate to matters important to the organization, and connect to clear and specific goals.
- They clearly describe the gap between the current state and the goal.
- The key variables — the target, the current state, and the gap — are quantifiable.
- They are as neutral as possible concerning possible diagnoses or solutions.
- They are sufficiently small in scope that you can tackle them quickly.
Ask yourself the right questions
Another way to clearly define problems or needs etc is to base questions on the classic reporters’ questions:
- What is the source of the concern/problem/need/issue/opportunity?
- Where is this a concern/need etc?
- When is it a concern?
- Who is involved or affected?
- How are they involved or affected?
- Why is this a concern?
- How much is at stake? (including $)
You can ask the questions of people who are briefing you about the problem or you can ask yourself as you read briefing documents or think through all the factors involved.
It will also pay you to consider the following questions:
- Is this matter sufficiently large on which to expend resources now? If not, would it mean we will need to spend more resources later?
- Can we make enough of a difference if we act on it?
- Are we individually willing to be accountable on this issue to our senior management if the going gets tough?
Carefully consider the people who are or will be affected by the matter – the stakeholders. Find out their perspectives for your guidance. After all, concerns, problems and issues only arise because they create an impact on someone. Identify the main stakeholders, and the influence of each – either groups or individuals – and whether they are friendly, hostile or neutral on the matter in question.
The answers to these key questions will enable you to succinctly summarize the main facts of the matter in a sentence or short paragraph.
Ensure your problem summary or statement is written objectively. Be careful not to imply blame on the cause of a problem because you may offend some people who may be trying to dodge any suggestion of blame, and may over-react to what you have written.
Examples of clearly defined problems
- As only 37% of our employees are aware of the 3 key points in our new bonus plan, which will be put to their vote on 15 March, this will reduce their support for the plan.
The individual elements of the problem could be summarized to feed into the overall statement. For instance, the first problem example, above, looked at its component parts to draw an overall conclusion:
- 34% of our 291 assembly line workers know the 3 key points of our new bonus plan.
- 75% of our 4 marketing staff know the 3 key points of our new bonus plan.
- 52% of our 38 administration staff know the 3 key points of our new bonus plan.
Examples of other clearly defined problems or opportunities
- The community group’s objections are slowing the local council’s rezoning approvals for the property we have bought for our new manufacturing plant, which we need to be approved by 15 May.
- False allegations about the safety of this skateboard are likely to reduce its sales by 30% this financial year.
- A higher proportion of digitally capable 18-34 year-olds in the State’s population is creating a strong opportunity to promote our new video game in the lead-up to the holiday season.
When you have satisfied yourself that you have clearly defined problems in a problem summary, sleep on it. Read it again the next morning. You are likely to find you will want to improve some of the wording when you review it with fresh eyes.
Circulate the summary to your stakeholders to seek their feedback and verification. Each stakeholder needs to confirm his or her agreement so you achieve a consistent approach. This is vital especially in tackling large, complex problems that include smaller problems.
For instance, when I was appointed to develop a strategy for a prisons department in response to a critical 180-page report from a government inquiry into a prison riot, I found the report was written in a confusing way, and I needed to carefully analyze and clarify the key causes from discussions with departmental executives and from internal reports. Then I circulated my problem statement/summary to the department’s senior management to verify my understanding of the key aspects of the problem so I could then proceed with the next step.
Four common mistakes in trying to clearly define problems
The MIT researchers conclude that four main mistakes are made in trying to clearly define problems:
1. Failing to state the problems
The most common mistake is not developing problem statements at all. People often assume that they all already agree on the problems and should just get busy solving them. Unfortunately, such clarity and unanimous agreement rarely exist. It is an example of an action-oriented bias – people feel obliged to do something, and the sooner the better, without thinking it through. You can read more on decision-making biases in my article “Are biased decisions damaging your results?”
2. Problem statements as diagnosis or solution
Another frequent mistake is writing a problem statement that presumes either the diagnosis or the solution. A problem statement that presumes the diagnosis will often sound like:
- “The problem is we lack the right lobbying capabilities,”
and one that presumes a solution will sound like
- “The problem is that we haven’t spent the money on a lobbying campaign.”
Neither is an effective problem statement because neither refers to goals or targets. The overall target is implicit, and the person formulating the statement has jumped straight to either a diagnosis or a solution. Allowing diagnoses or proposed solutions to creep into problem statements means that you have skipped one or more steps in the logical chain and therefore missed an opportunity to engage in a careful review. This mistake tends to reinforce existing differences of opinion between departments and often worsens turf wars between them.
3. Lack of a clear gap
Failing to quantify the difference between the current situation and the desired position. These problem or opportunity statements sound like “We need to improve our government relations outcomes” or “Our marketing communication needs to be more effective.” By not spelling out the quantifiable difference, participants are not engaging in clear thinking. This creates two related problems. First, people don’t know when they have achieved the goal, making it difficult for them to feel good about their efforts. Second, when people address poorly defined situations, they tend to do so with large, generalized solutions that rarely produce the desired results.
4. The problem is too big
Many problem or opportunity statements are too big. General statements lead to large, costly, and slow projects, but clearly defined problems focused on specific outcomes lead to quick results, increasing both learning and confidence.
Writing good problem or opportunity statements is a skill you can learn, but it takes practice. If you obtain input and feedback from your colleagues to build these skills, you will develop better statements more quickly. While it is often difficult to write a clear statement of the challenges you face, it is much easier to critique other people’s efforts as a third party and when you have less at stake in a particular outcome.
This article is adapted from a chapter in my Kindle book Annual communication plans: How to get the results you want! You can read more about strategy development in the ebook, including how to write effective goals and objectives.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. His wide-ranging career includes roles as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer and business manager. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.