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Defining the problem is the important first step in planning

01 Jun, 2020 Annual communication plans, Communication campaigns, Communication plans, Issues and crises, PR planning, strategy, budgeting

Some communication problems seem simple to solve, and certainly can be addressed at that level. But many problems or issues need greater depth of thought. They may contain deeper or more complex factors that need resolving – and defining.

One way to cut to the core of the problem or issue is to clearly define it as a problem statement. The problem statement should refer to the main likely impact on your organization, including possible impact on your corporate reputation or ability to continue operating, as well as on your financial standing.

Other stakeholders may try to define the problem or issue from their point of view. If they succeed in having the matter defined to suit their interests, it obviously becomes harder for your organization to resolve it from your point of view.

The clarity of thought and direction created by the problem statement goes a long way to creating effective goals that lead to effective results in a communication project or program. If you don’t define the problem, your goals may be fuzzy and superficial. Time spent in carefully defining the problem at the start of the process will save time and arguments later when considering the intended outcomes and strategy.

To reach a suitable definition of a problem, ask the classic reporters’ questions: “How, why, what, when, where, who, and how many?” You can ask the questions of people who are verbally briefing you about the problem or you can ask yourself as you read briefing documents or think through all the factors involved.

Don’t lay blame

In trying to define the problem, avoid laying the blame on an individual or group as the cause or who have worsened the problem. Pointing the finger of blame will only undermine the process. Fault finding invariably provokes people’s defense mechanisms, resulting in defensive and antagonistic attitudes. Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, quotes a sage observation:

“In any situation, the person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge as the leader, whether designated or not.”

Questions to ask yourself about the problem/issue

It will also pay you to consider the following key questions:

  1. Is this matter a sufficiently significant problem on which to expend resources now? If not, would it mean we will need to spend more resources later?
  2. Can we make enough of a difference if we act on it?
  3. Are we individually willing to be accountable on this issue to our senior management if the going gets tough?

Consider the stakeholders

You need to carefully consider the people who are or will be affected by the problem – the stakeholders in the matter. Find out their perspectives to keep in mind for your guidance. After all, concerns, problems and issues only arise because they create an impact on someone. Investigate fully who the main stakeholders are, the extent of their influence or reach – either groups or individuals – and whether they are friendly, hostile or neutral on the matter in question.

You may feel the problem is simple and obvious, and it may well be, but quite often problems prove to be complex, with several interrelated causes, and so you will want to ensure you have got to its core. If you are dealing with an interdepartmental committee, you may find the committee members own views are colored by the way the problem affects their area (where they stand depends on where they sit!), and therefore it is important to reach agreement on the core problem.

The answers to the key questions will enable you to succinctly summarize the main facts of the problem in a sentence or short paragraph. Write or type your summary because the act of turning it into words on paper helps to clarify your thoughts and the thoughts of the people who have briefed you.

Ensure your problem summary or statement is written objectively. Don’t get drawn into offering initial thoughts about the solution until you have learned enough facts to do so confidently. At the least, you can say they are only your initial, tentative thoughts and that you need to do some more preparation before you can develop goals, objectives and recommended action.

Examples of problem statements

Here are some sample problem statements arising from analysis:

Most of our employees are unaware of the key details of the new bonus plan.

Each element of the problem could be summarized to feed into the completed statement. For instance, the first problem statement example could have been developed by looking first at the component parts and drawing a general conclusion expressed in the problem statement:

Only 47% of our 291 assembly line workers know the three key points in our new bonus plan.

Only 25% of our 4 marketing staff know the three key points in our new bonus plan.

Around 63% of our 58 administration staff know the three key points of our new bonus plan.

The same can be done for this problem statement:

The community group’s objections are slowing the rezoning of the land we have bought for our new manufacturing plant.

If you define an issue or problem too narrowly or widely it can restrict your ability to reach an effective goal and objectives.

Example of working through a problem

Issue expert, Tony Jaques, uses electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) in an example of a problem statement about the general public becoming concerned about the effect of high voltage power lines running alongside residential areas. The issue can be narrowly defined as:

False allegations about EMFs are endangering our ability to profitably develop our business.

This problem statement would generate a fairly narrow goal in response:

Apply the necessary resources to disprove the allegations.

A broader problem statement would better define the problem:

Public belief in claimed health impacts of EMFs threatens to impact our ability to profitably develop our business.

The broader definition creates more scope for a broad main goal:

Minimize short and medium term impacts of public belief in health effects of EMFs on present and future business.

The previous goal statement for the EMF project would be only one of the various goals and objectives resulting from the problem at hand. (For example, one of the goals might be an operational goal rather than a communication goal – to increase the distance of high voltage power lines from residential areas wherever possible when installing the lines.)

Sleep on it – leave your draft summary overnight

When you have satisfied yourself about the causes of the problem and have drafted a problem summary, sleep on it. Don’t act on it immediately; read it again the next morning. You are likely to find you will want to change some of the wording as you look at it with fresh eyes. Psychological  research at Northwestern University in 2019 supports previous research that:

“If you’re facing a vexing problem at work, you truly are better off getting a good night’s sleep before making any decisions…The research provides important information about information processing during sleep, as well as incubation for problem solving — why we sometimes solve a problem better after a break.”

Get stakeholders to confirm their support tangibly

Circulate the summary to your stakeholders to seek their feedback and validation. Each stakeholder needs to confirm his or her agreement so that you achieve a consistent approach. Doing this binds them into the process so that they can’t distance themselves later from the problem by saying they weren’t consulted. This also makes it more difficult for them to lay blame if unforeseen complications happen – especially vital in tackling large, complex 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, 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 for sign-off to verify my understanding of the key aspects of the problem so I could then proceed with the next step.

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About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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