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How problem statements help you set the right OKR every time

Updated: July 30, 2023

No one likes being told what to do. Yet so often in business, that's exactly what we do. We talk to people in terms of what we’d like them to do. The problem is this drives a compliance mindset and a lack of ownership from the people who are taking on the work. There is a simple way around this that so many failed to use. It's called the problem statement.

Problem statements are simply the articulation of what we need to solve. This passes the responsibility onto the individual team to solve that problem and drive a successful outcome. It’s a fundamental shift in mindset from just doing the work to actually achieving the outcome.

When businesses and teams talk about solving problems rather than solutions,  it creates an environment of autonomy. This is because the individuals can own the process from start to finish.  they can then work out the right path to solve the problem. tweaking and adapting the solution along the way to get there.

Where did problem statements originate?

Problem statements have been used significantly throughout history to help reframe what we are trying to achieve. Problem statements really came into popularity in the manufacturing industry as we reached the limits of Frederick Taylor's scientific measurement in manufacturing plants. Toyota really progressed the concept with their continuous Improvement frameworks aimed at optimising their manufacturing lines. Since this time, forward-thinking ways of solving customer problems abroad in a new era of focusing on problems to create innovative solutions.

Design Thinking was one of the frameworks popularised during the Digital Revolution. The framework outlines a series of methods and tools to build empathy for people, understand their problems and solve these problems effectively.

Surprisingly, after all this time there is no standard definition of what a problem statement is and what it should contain. We've come to find the following approach valuable when understanding people, their problems, and different ways that we might actually help solve those problems.

Key elements of a problem statement

Most problems can be broken down into the following few components:

  • Who’s impacted -  which individuals or groups are being impacted by this problem not being solved?
  • Desired outcome - Finally we want to capture a statement of what success looks like. If we solve the problem successfully,   how would things be different for the better? 
  • Problem definition -  what is the actual issue that we're trying to solve? 
  • Impact - What's the actual impact of this problem?  This may relate To customer-facing issues which detract from satisfaction or retention,  or it may relate to internal team business issues.

A simple template to follow

Key elements of a problem statement can all be summed up in the following simple template. It's not intended to give a complete view,  but it certainly does make it easier.  this should suit most circumstances where you're dealing with business or customer problems. Could range from product issues to two issues in how you run your business.

Here’s the template:

When [someone] 

tries to [achieve an outcome] 

they [face a problem] 

which results in [a negative impact]

For example:

When customers [someone] tries to buy a product quickly [achieve an outcome] they are slowed down when adding their address in checkout [face a problem] which results in customers leaving for checking out [a negative impact]

The sequence is very intentional. We want to start with who by understanding who is impacted by the problem, we towards solving their problems. Having a goal in the early is quite important too.   we want to know who they are and what they are trying to achieve.

When to use it?

Problem statements can be insanely viable in more situations than you might think, so often we approach things with an idea in mind. That's a solution, but the question is do we really understand what the problem is? Even if we have a big idea of what the problem is, have we really gotten to the core of it?

You get a lot of benefits out of problem statements when thinking about working on a new feature for customers,  a change you want to make in your business, or even something that you want to change your life. 

Generally, the right time to do it is when you're about to kick off a new piece of work or set new goals for your team. It gets them thinking about what success really looks like. Want to move beyond just doing the work, and actually thinking about the outcome. Using problems at the start of a piece of work can be really game-changing.

Use the problem statements to validate that you're actually solving the problem and that the problem statement itself was correct! Whether you're working on quarterly goals such as OKRs  or running a project which is going over a period of time.

What are the risks of using a template like this?

The world is complex and the reality is so are problems. They are often multifaceted, involving a range of individuals and circumstances,  and generally take a trial-and-error approach to solve. The risk of using problem statements like we're outlined here is you believe that you have fully understood the problem. So use this structure to help guide your thinking and help find and validate problems.  leverage it to come up with creative solutions to these problems.  Just don't fall into the trap of thinking you have the right answer. To be successful, you need to treat your problem statement as a hypothesis full stop find ways in which you can quickly test your solutions and learn. Continuously challenge your assumptions!

Thanks to Steve Mitchelle and Dan Prager for helping me refine the Problem statement. It makes much more sense than it did originally!