How A Problem Statement Kept Me In Control Of My Analysis

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Jul 24, 2022
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A Small Business Case Study

Creating a structure as the basis of analysis is one of the most powerful communication tools - and a problem statement is the best place to start.

When my daughter was a baby we were sitting together and playing. I had my home office keys with me. I would carry them wherever I went so I didn't need to think where I put them last.

My daughter took a keen interest in my keys so I jingled them around and made her laugh. And then she took them and scampered off. Right at that moment someone texted me - so I turned my attention to my phone. 

And then she returned - without the keys.

I asked her where the keys were but she couldn't tell me. Now I was starting to fret because I wouldn’t be able to get into my office because it was locked.

And I had a meeting in 15 minutes.

I hunted around the lounge and kitchen to find them but they were nowhere. I kept asking my daughter "where did you put my keys?”. And she was pointing here and there, but they weren't anywhere. Now I realised that my daughter couldn’t tell me where the keys were.

With a lack of control and a bit of inattentiveness my relaxing downtime had turned into chaos.

Similarly when engaging on projects we need to lead our clients to get the outcomes we need for analysis. If we act passively and don’t take charge then they’ll take things all over the place and create chaos.

In this article we’ll explore how a problem statement acts as a powerful tool to keep control of our engagement and analysis right through the project lifecycle.

What is a problem statement?

A problem statement is a high level summary of a particular problem that a stakeholder is experiencing. Although it is high level, it also points to a specific problem or set of problems that needs solving.

It sets the parameters for anything that you’re working on, and therefore acts as a powerful communication tool, setting expectations and most importantly scope. It’s designed to be a quick read, often in under 2 minutes and perfect for busy senior executives.

There are different ways to frame a problem statement, but my favourite one consists of the following ‘ingredients’:

  • Situation - what is the background
  • Problem - what is the problem
  • Implication - if the problem isn’t solved what will happen
  • Benefit - what’s the benefit of solving the problem
  • Objectives - what are the specific business objectives that the problem is preventing from being achieved?
  • Vision - what does the ‘new world’ or ‘future state’ look like

Why does a Business Analyst need to re-main in control?

I spend time in Portugal and during my stay there I prefer to be in the rural areas as the nature is exquisite. I often see shepherds with their flock of 30 or more sheep. Although the sheep are happy in their world, the shepherd is expert at ushering them to wherever they need to be - even on roads where cars are going back and forth. The sheep are totally calm, and the shepherd is in control.

This very much reminds me of our relationship to our stakeholders. To a degree, your stakeholders are like sheep, and we are the shepherd. A lot of the stakeholders you work with on projects don’t have much exposure to projects - and so they are reliant on you to facilitate them throughout the project.

We cannot rely on others (such as our Project Manager) to take control of stakeholders. We understand both the high level viewpoint of the project as well as the detail. And so if we don’t create the right mechanisms to keep these two in sync and keep our stakeholders in check, then things would quickly descend into chaos.

How does the problem statement help a Business Analyst to remain in control?

Do you know where this quote is from?

Structure brings clarity and clarity creates control.

It’s from me ;-)

One of the challenges within Business Analysis is creating clarity, and that’s when we lose control. There’s so much information to wade through, and it’s all too easy to drown in it and get overwhelmed. And that’s not useful to us because if we’re out of control - then so is everything else.

Therefore we bring in structure to everything we do because it makes our communication powerful. And that’s why we have all these business analysis techniques.

I consider a problem statement to be the root because it acts as a frame of reference for everything else I’ll be doing. It’s a high level viewpoint and that frame of reference allows me to do the following:

  • Keep everyone on track by linking back to the problem statement
  • Ensuring we don’t introduce activities that are out of scope
  • Validate whether new requirements are relevant to the problem
  • Ensure a solution is created that meets very specific objectives
  • Make sure we aren’t discussing new problems not related to the problem

You can use this concept everywhere - at the project level, work package level, even to guide a specific meeting. It sets clear parameters around what you’re doing and that puts you in control.

Example of a small business problem?

Let's look at a recent engagement I had with a solopreneur business.

My client had a problem with their marketing funnel. So we set up a half hour meeting and created a problem statement together. Using the problem statement structure helped create an effective meeting and clear understanding.

In that meeting, as I expected, lots of problems came up. Which one do we focus on? Are we solving everything?

No, we focused on the BIG problem - and that narrowed the conversation down.

But further into the meeting, my client went on to speak about other problems but because we’d already narrowed on one BIG problem, I just brought her back to that and we continued.

That was extremely powerful, because then we could go deep into the 1 BIG problem, and from that we summarised the problem statement:

  • Situation - the client has a coaching business helping people with a particular health issue
  • Problem - many of the leads (potential customers) are not being nurtured with regular content, or given the opportunity to have a call and explore working together
  • Implication - money is being left on the table
  • Benefit - by nurturing and giving opportunity to these leads, more sales can be made which would help people with health issues
  • Objective - the client wanted to increase their sales by 25% in the next 6 months
  • Vision - by creating a customer journey and building a marketing and sales funnel, more leads would convert into paying customers

Doesn’t this tell the client what they already know?

That is a fantastic question - and this is often the reason we don’t do the right type of analysis. We assume that the client already knows it, so what benefit will they get from us telling them what they know.

This is a big misconception. Although you’re hired as a problem solver, you need to the build relationships, and need to start by establishing trust (particularly useful when managing difficult stakeholders).

And trust is built by telling them what they know by:

  • Showing that you understand their problem using their language
  • Helping them understand what the biggest problems are
  • Creating a viewpoint of their problem that creates more clarity in their own minds

Once you’ve done that, you’ve won the client over because you’ve used a structure to create clarity, which has put you in control of the engagement.

Remember:

Structure brings clarity and clarity creates control.

Summary

  • A problem statement is a high level summary of a problem and is a powerful communication tool
  • It also helps a business analyst maintain control when conducting analysis
  • It consists of the problem, the consequences of not solving it, the benefits of solving it, the business objectives and the end state after it’s all solved
  • A well crafted problem statement can be read in a matter of minutes
  • A business analyst is like a shepherd, herding stakeholders (who are like sheep) throughout the project lifecycle
  • Therefore it’s important for a business analyst to remain in control at all times to avoid chaos
  • The problem statement is a great way to keep everything under control because it creates structure and builds clarity
  • Specifically the problem statement creates a frame around a particular piece of work which creates a laser focus and stops scope creep, irrelevant conversations, etc.
  • A problem statement can be used for anything - even to control a meeting
  • By taking a client through this exercise you can pinpoint their problem and build a strong problem statement
  • Although this tells them what they already know, it creates immense trust because you understand them, narrow in on the biggest problem, and cut through their confusion
  • Therefore the structure of the problem statement creates clarity which puts you in control of the engagement, and wins them over

So what happened to my keys

The keys seemed to be lost and I was thinking I’d have to turn the house upside down to find them. But all of a sudden while in the kitchen I had an intuitive thought. I looked into an opened carton of water bottles and there they were - laying at the bottom of the plastic wrapping!

So if you find you’ve lost control, praying for intuition is really your only hope that could save you from a world of pain.

Find out more


Author: James Compton is the Director of Professional Development for the IIBA. He is a Business Analyst Consultant and Trainer with over 20 years experience, and is on a mission to raise the profile of Business Analysts as highly valued members of any good project team.

Contact: [email protected]

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/business-analysis-consulting-coach-james-compton/

 



 




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