Project Step #1: Create a Problem Statement

Tom Armstrong
Tom Armstrong

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Seek expert advice and craft a definition of the problem that the project is going to solve. This step will help avoid scope creep and confusion. It will also help to create team buy-in and will take you much closer to ensuring that all stakeholders understand the “why” behind the project. But what does it look like to create a problem statement? Let's take a look below.

What's Your Problem?

Quality management guru, Joseph Juran, defined a project as “a problem scheduled to completion." I find that for the purpose of projects in education this is an apt description, yet the essential first step of defining the problem is often missed. As a result, many projects have teams that are working passionately together only to discover that they are not working to solve the same problem.

Creating a problem statement sounds simple enough. It is essential to get it right and easy to get wrong. It is not a list of challenges you face in creating your solution. It is the reason you have created that solution in the first place and justifies the use of valuable time and resources.

Here are two examples of potential problem statements from the field of education:

Problem Statement #1: Family involvement in a child’s education has proven to be one of the most important factors in student success. However, family involvement in our district is chronically low, which we estimate to have a negative impact on student achievement by two grade points on average.

Problem Statement #2: Reports of incidents of bullying this year in our school have gone up by 40% over this time last year. Students report feeling unsafe in hallways, bathrooms, and on the playground.

Notice that neither of these statements include any reference to solutions. However, they should begin to spark some imagination on the part of the reader to begin seeking those solutions. They are simply stated and should serve to create a sense of urgency within the team.

Bring In The Experts

Let’s use the issue of bullying as our example for how to craft a problem statement. Imagine that you have been asked by the principal to find a way to decrease bullying in the school. Your first instinct might be to start thinking of solutions and then to put together a team to implement those solutions. Stop and rewind. You are smart, but your team as a collective is smarter. Your first step is to bring together a team of experts to define the problem as a group.

For best results this should include a couple of student representatives, family members, and school administrators including the principal, parent coordinator, the PTA president, etc. Conduct a brief meeting in which you let everyone present know that they are essential to solving the issue of bullying in the school. Tell them that before you begin working on a plan you want to first create a clear statement of the problem you are working to solve.

At your meeting ask them to write one sentence that describes the issue of bullying in the school. Let them know that this can be a very general description but they can include locations where the bullying occurs. They can also focus on the impact it has on school culture and learning. Give them 5 minutes for this task. Once finished ask them to read what they wrote aloud to the group. As they read aloud, you should write key words and phrases on newsprint for all to see.

After everyone has read their statements ask the group open-ended questions like “What surprised you?” and “What are some common themes?”. You should now have a clear enough perspective on the problem to craft a statement that the whole group agrees on. Again, avoid any references to potential solutions to the problem. The best problem statements spark the imaginations of the readers to start discussing solutions. You can then focus that energy when you craft your mission statement. However, your next step is to imagine what the world will look like once this problem is solved. You should be able to address this in the same meeting. For more on that read, be sure to look out for next Wednesday's post, "Create a Vision Statement."

To read the intro to this series, please click on the link below:

Introductory Post: 25 Steps to Small Project Success

Do you have an example of working with passion, but without having first defined the problem? Tom would love to hear about it!


"Project Step #1: Create a Problem Statement" by Tom Armstrong. 2016

Originally published on LinkedIn.

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Tom Armstrong

By Tom Armstrong

Tom Armstrong started with The Leadership Program in 2007 as a trainer teaching leadership skills through the art of percussion. As a professional musician, Tom quickly found that his love for teaching was not limited to percussion. Fascinated by the idea of using the arts as a way to engage youth and adults, Tom began teaching leadership concepts through the arts and grew in the organization to his current position as Senior Director of Programming. He now oversees the successful implementation of programming for over one hundred schools. As a Project Management Professional, Tom also applies his expertise in project management to help businesses achieve their benchmarks for success in all areas of effective management and corporate culture building.