A Problem Statement Gets to the Point

People collaborating to compose a problem statement

Compose a problem statement to distill a complex issue to its core fundamentals. With this valuable tool, you can generate a pithy nucleus for grant proposals, contract bids, marketing materials, a research thesis, policy decisions, and more. In short, it helps you place the horse before the cart, one of my Word Sculpting Tools in “Write to Influence!”

The problem statement consists of three parts; each should contain only three or four sentences.

  • First, describe the issue. Address the existing deficiency, the need for and urgency of intervention, causality relating to social or economic impacts, whom it affects (think secondary and tertiary levels, also), and its longevity. Substantiate with two or three facts. Describe in terms of quality, cost, time, customer satisfaction, or mission impact, as appropriate.
  • Next, propose a solution. Explain the background context (e.g., the cause) and other supporting rationale, as needed.  Describe the solution and your ability to implement it. Specify beneficiaries
  • Conclusion. Describe the envisioned end state

Some people disagree about this sequence, proposing instead that the author should first set the context, then address the problem. I disagree. Readers are busy. Cut to the chase. Present the problem, followed by background data. Recognize my Horse before the Cart tool here?

An effective problem statement must be fact-based, specific, and compelling. How do you achieve this? In three short words … Write to Influence! Follow these specific strategies and tips:

  • Identify the audience. Hint … it’s not you. Empathize with the intended recipient. If you provide products or services … write from the customer’s perspective. If you seek a grant, play to the grant maker’s mission and interests
  • Gather data. Elucidate the issue by asking who, what, where, when, why, how, and how much
  • Strategize the message. Triage the data; open the statement with the most poignant aspects of the issue. Given space constraints (i.e., 3-4 sentences), discard information of lesser relevance
  • Speak clearly. Tell the story succinctly and unambiguously – eschew bureaucratic blather and acronyms; do not assume readers understand the issue. Apply Word Sculpting Tools to hone the text to that fine edge

Two examples follow. The first is notional and highlights how asking questions can reveal pertinent information.

  • Our corporation’s IT system is vulnerable to cyber attacks [gap in capability … the what]. Last week [when], we experienced our fifth attack this year [what and the trend]. We lost intellectual property worth $2.5M [impact], correlating to 5 years of technological advantage over competitors [why this is a problem]. Another attack will jeopardize the company’s survival [the urgency].
  • We must: 1) comprehensively assess our IT vulnerabilities 2) identify our most critical assets, functions, and services, 3) determine mitigations, 4) improve IT resiliency, and 5) invest in our undermanned IT staff. HR reports a 40% decrement in IT specialists since last year, severely impeding our ability to upgrade IT security measures.
  • Executing these actions will produce a more secure, resilient IT system; safeguard our intellectual property; and position the company for future success, benefiting our employees, clients, and stockholders.

This example is from a grant request composed by Sarah Wilson (policegrantshelp.com):

  • Domestic violence is a complex problem involving relationships, economic conditions, emotions, and entangled social issues. The police department is tasked daily to respond to domestic violence calls for service, investigating the cases for court filing, and assisting with the court prosecution. Since domestic violence case filings are often based on observable injuries, it is imperative they are properly documented.
  • Photographs tell the story and, unlike testimony, cannot be forgotten or altered over time. Domestic violence cases without photographs are difficult to file and result in fewer court convictions. Since convictions stop the cycle of violence, photographs are essential to prevent future crimes and injuries.
  • This program will purchase and issue cameras to Patrol Officers so they can document domestic violence injuries while at the crime scene.