The Problem-Definition Process

Developing the Right Solution

The Problem-Definition Process - Developing the Right Solution

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Understand your problem and its wider context.

When we try to solve business problems, we can often pressurize ourselves to find solutions quickly.

The problem with this is that we can end up only partially solving the problem, or we can solve the wrong problem altogether, with all of the delay, expense, and lost business opportunity that goes with this.

The Problem-Definition Process helps you avoid this. In this article, we'll look at this process and we'll see how to apply it.


Dwayne Spradline published the Problem-Definition Process in September 2012's Harvard Business Review.

Spradline is the President and CEO of Innocentive, an organization that connects organizations with freelance problem solvers. He developed the process over 10 years, while working with a community of more than 25,000 "problem solvers" such as engineers, scientists, and industry experts.

The process gives you four steps that help you better understand complex problems. These steps are:

  1. Establish the need.
  2. Justify the need.
  3. Understand the problem and its wider context.
  4. Write a problem statement.

The Problem-Definition Process encourages you to define and understand the problem that you're trying to solve, in detail. It also helps you confirm that solving the problem contributes towards your organization's objectives.

This stops you spending time, energy, and resources on unimportant problems, or on initiatives that don't align with your organization's overall strategy.

It also encourages you to fully define the problem and its boundaries. You can then use this information to justify the need for change, brief designers and contractors, and kick-off new projects successfully.


Use the Problem-Definition Process alongside tools such as Simplex and Hurson's Productive Thinking Model. These will guide you through the full problem-solving process.

Using the Problem-Definition Process

The four main steps in the Problem-Definition Process contain several smaller questions that, once answered, help you define and clarify the problem thoroughly.

Let's look at each step in more detail.


The process we present below is an adaptation of Spradline's original model. We’ve included additional questions and sub-steps where appropriate.

1. Establish the Need

The first step is to identify why you need a solution to the problem. To do this, answer these questions:

a. What is the basic need? First, write your problem down in simple terms. Then, identify the basic need that you'll fulfill once you've solved the problem.

For example:

Problem Need
Customers aren't completing orders once they've signed up for a website account. Get higher online sales.
Bottleneck in the manufacturing process because components aren’t made quickly enough. Provide a timely and adequate supply of these components.
Sales reps cannot access their clients' account details while out of the office. Give better service to customers.

b. What is the ideal outcome? Next, identify the outcome that you want to see once you've implemented a solution.

Don't think of any particular solutions at this point – your aim is to visualize the result of a successful solution, not the solution itself.

It helps to be specific here: "Increase weekly sign-ups by 20 percent" is more useful than "Increase weekly sign-ups."

c. Who will (and won't) benefit? Finally in this step, identify all of the stakeholders who will benefit, both directly and indirectly, once you've solved the problem and reached your desired outcome. Write down who these people or groups are, and the advantages that they'll see.

Also consider who may be at a disadvantage if you solve the problem.

Tools like Impact Analysis and the Futures Wheel are useful here, as they help identify the possible consequences of a change.


As you work through the next steps of this process and get more of an understanding of your problem, you may find it useful to go back and refine your answers to previous questions.

2. Justify the Need

Once you understand the need for solving the problem, you must then justify why you should solve it. To do this, answer these questions:

a. Is effort aligned with your overall strategy? This problem, and the effort that you'll be putting into solving it, must align with your organization's strategic priorities, as well as its mission and values.

b. What benefits do we want, and how can we measure these? Identify what benefits your organization, as a whole, will see when you solve this problem, and think about how you can measure these in relation to its overall strategy and objectives. Be as specific as possible.

c. Are we likely to be able to implement a solution? Think about factors such as how you'll get support from stakeholders and decision-makers, and how you'll access the required resources and expertise. This may involve speaking with senior managers in your organization to understand what resources may be available.

3. Understand the Problem and Its Wider Context

In steps 1 and 2, you identified why you need a solution, and why it's important to your strategy and mission.

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The three questions in this third step encourage you to look at the problem in more depth, and to look back into the past to see what you can learn from past efforts.

a. What's the cause? First in this step, make sure that you've identified all of the causes of your problem, using tools like CATWOE, Root Cause Analysis, Cause and Effect Analysis, Systems Diagrams, and Interrelationship Diagrams.

b. What solutions already exist? Have other people in your organization tried to solve this or a similar problem in the past? If so, what did they do? What worked and what didn't work?

Next you need to find out if people outside of your organization have already tried to do something about this problem. Widen your search to include trade journals, field studies, past research, competitors, industry experts, and your personal network.

Your goal is to look at what's been done already, and what hasn't worked, so that you don't waste time working on a solution that already exists, or working on a solution that's likely to fail.

c. What are the constraints? By now, you're starting to have a deeper understanding of the problem and how it relates to your organization. Now you can brainstorm factors that might prevent you from implementing a solution. (Use your answers from question c in step 2 to help with this.)

First, look at internal constraints. Will you have access to enough people, money, and other resources to solve this problem? Are there any stakeholders who might try to block your efforts? Are there any rules or procedures that you must follow? (For instance, a new website would need to align with your organization's brand guidelines.)

Next, look externally. Are there any government regulations or laws that might stall or block your solutions? Is the technology available?

d. What requirements must a solution meet? Write down the requirements that the solution must meet in order to solve the problem successfully. As part of this, also identify other factors that, while not essential for solving the problem successfully, would add value to the final solution. For example, you might want "quiet machinery," or a "database that you can access from anywhere with an Internet connection."

e. How will we define success? Identify how you'll define success once you've implemented a solution.

4. Write a Problem Statement

The final step is to pull together all of the information that you've gathered into a clear, comprehensive problem statement. This should provide a thorough overview of the problem, and outline a plan for how you will go about solving it.

If someone else (for example, a contractor, outside organization, or other department) will be tasked with solving the problem, also work through the following questions, and include the answers to these in your problem statement:

a. Which problem solvers should we use? Identify who, specifically, is best placed to help solve this problem. This could be a person, a team, or an outside firm.

b. What information and language should the problem statement include? The problem statement needs to be clear, specific, and understood by the people who should solve it. Avoid industry jargon, and make sure that it relates to its intended audience.

c. What do problem solvers need to produce? What will you or your organization need from them? For instance, will you need a comprehensive report, or a presentation on the proposed solution? Do you want a prototype? Is there a deadline? Spell the details out here.

d. What incentives do solvers need? This question addresses motivation. If an internal team will be working on the solution, how will they be rewarded? If an external team or firm will be addressing this problem, what incentives are you offering?

e. How will we evaluate the solutions? Who will be responsible for analyzing proposals, and what evaluation method will you use?

Key Points

Dwayne Spradline published the Problem-Definition Process in the September 2012 Harvard Business Review.

The process presents four steps that help you better understand complex problems. These four steps are:

  1. Establish the need.
  2. Justify the need.
  3. Understand the problem and its wider context.
  4. Write a problem statement.

The main advantage of using the process is that it helps you to define and understand the problem in detail, and helps you understand how important a problem is in relation to your organization's mission and strategy. From this, you can determine whether or not it's worth developing a solution.