Wednesday, January 16

Stop starting with the problem statement – it misses so much opportunity!

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The problem statement is the WRONG starting place for so many projects. We do it in our everyday business life as naturally as breathing – in fact it is deeply rooted into best practice for so many things we do.


I walk into a dentist’s surgery “how can I help with you, what seems to be the problem?”.

Sitting in a project start up meeting staffed with Lean Six Sigma practitioners – the project manager gets up and in the spirit of best practice suggests “let’s start by articulating the problem statement.

The value-driven salesperson meets a new prospect for the first time and carries out a qualification routine that almost always centres on understanding the challenges impacting the business that their company with their plethora of global, award winning, best in market solutions will help address.

What is wrong with this?

At first glance this is the correct and obvious thing to do. The problem statement is good for creating a collective focus. The problem is it creates misdirection which at best misses opportunity, and at worst offers an antidote as good as paracetamol to cure a brain tumour.

What happens if every change programme was built on a wider focus? The answer is invariably “if we take our focus away from the issue in hand, we create needless complexity, cost and time overhead. All we need to do is solve the problem”. I would suggest that if any form of change is initiated where there are multiple stakeholders and change agents involved, simply resolving the problem observed is not enough.

A good dentist will recognise that. Whilst the patient often goes into the surgery because they have a toothache, they really need:

  1. The pain to be fixed
  2. Ideas to keep their mouth, teeth and gums a bit healthier
  3. A brighter, shinier set of teeth.

It’s called a successful patient outcome and every good dentist will do this as naturally as breathing.

What would happen if projects stopped recognising the problem statement but instead started focussing on the outcome statement?

If you are going to make changes to the way people work, it invariably means processes change even if they are not formally documented.

Outcome driven change recognises:

  • The outcome to the customer (need and want – and more than just data!!)
  • The outcome to the company (if you change the way people work then you might as well remove non-contributory work and think about revenue, cost and service implications)
  • The outcome to the employee (a change for the better in the employee’s eyes invariably improves performance)
  • The outcome to the stakeholder (internal and external)
  • The outcome relating to the social agenda (almost always never even considered)

The challenge is almost always the “we don’t do things this way” or “why are you trying to boil the ocean?” or the dreaded “this is diverting us away from best practice”

My counter-challenge is this: can you afford not to embrace the opportunities offered by focussing on customer outcomes?


About Author

Founder & CEO. Charles is an acknowledged leader in customer-driven performance change using both best practice and emerging next practice perspectives. He leads, mentors and coaches in both strategic and operational initiatives. A strong believer is the potential for "supercompany performance" he innovates using next practice thinking and methods to enhance the business. He researches heavily to retain his reputation as a thought leader, which he has applied across 40 countries, multiple sectors and companies such as Citibank, Nielsen, Microsoft, Vodafone, Tracker and governments in Middle East and Asia. Contributes to business journals and often invited as a speaker or chairman to events all over the world.

1 Comment

  1. Katherine Church on

    Interesting perspective – can you give a practical example to bring it to life?

    Quite often I have spent time with organisations trying to work out what the problem statement is…quite often that’s a reverse engineering of what the bad outcomes – the current situation – are.

    This should cover all the angles you list out (e.g. getting a multi faceted view of the problem from the perspective of multiple stakeholders…clearly the customer problem should be the one we focus on..but that’s not always possible for a number of reasons).
    I’m genuinely open to a new way of doing things and this looks interesting.

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