Every business has problems, it's just that most prefer to brush them under the carpet and focus on an 'exciting future'. We want to get them out in the open so we can collaborate on solving them, to have a better business in future.
Therefore we want to actively work to find the problems, before they find us, because it makes things better.
There are two types of problems:
Aaaarghhh: Something that needs fixing in the way the organisation works that's frustrating people now, and it's best to get it out in the open and address it. This could be something like not getting any time on professional development or not preparing properly for pitches. It's fine to just clearly state the problem.
Ooooooooh: A puzzle to be solved that leads to a revelation. A problem like a riddle or a crossword clue. This kind of problem to be solved is often posed as a question - such as, how could we break into a new sector? How do we get a better view of how the business is doing financially?
There are multiple sources of problems, and it's a good exercise in every quarterly retreat, monthly update and on each management Monday to check in against each of these to try to draw problems out.
Pyramid of purpose: Our Purpose, Aims, Areas of Focus, Motivations and Values. Are we living up to these? This is mostly the source of Aaaaarghhh problems, but also a good place to dig for Ooooooooh problems.
Big rocks: The 3-5 important objectives that we're currently working towards in this quarter. What challenges stand between now and achieving them? This is mostly where you'll find Ooooooooh problems.
Project retrospectives: What needs to filter up as a problem to be solved for the whole company in a more permanent way? As well as getting problems fed up from individual project retros, it;s also worth having regular high level retrospectives across longer periods on all projects. What are the bigger trends and patterns?
Sales retrospectives: What needs to filter up as a problem to be solved for the whole company? In the same way as with projects it's worth having high level retro's across many different sales over a longer period.
Professional Development plans: As individual team members seek to develop their own skills and experience they'll encounter problems of both types in the way.
Management Monday: The management team will spot problems arising as they work on the business doing accounting, forecasting, planning, and so on.
A problem statement should be clear, valuable, contained, and explorable:
Clear: make it easy to understand what the problem is just from reading the problem statement, without any specialist knowledge
Valuable: explain what effect the problem has now, or what benefit will flow from solving it
Contained: define a problem that can be examined on its own without a load of other dependencies. A problem that can be solved with the people, time and resources we have.
Explorable: Your problem statement should invite people to dig into an issue and explore it, before raising creative solutions. Problems aren't a place just to raise questions, so if your problem statement could be resolve simply by someone typing an answer to it, you might as well just ask that question in Slack or on email. It should also be written without specifying any solution, so that it is opening up the problem to others to solve with their own creative approaches.
Sometimes problem statements will be quite specific, and others could be quite open ended. Some might be a statement of a problem, others could be a question - taking the interpretation of 'problem' as 'a puzzle to be solved'.
Here are some badly-written problem statements:
"I need a new laptop": It's not explorable as it specifies a solution rather than a problem. No need to invite creativity here, just ask for a peer review of getting a new laptop.
"What is our policy on new laptops?": It's just a question that can be answered by someone, or if no-one can answer the question then it can be raised as a problem like "Nobody knows when it's okay to buy new laptops so some people have outdated machines that are slow and temperamental"
Here are some well-written problem statements (we'll probably update these as we learn how to better write them):
"We're not publicly demonstrating our experience from projects well enough, so potential clients don't see our track record, credibility and what we can do for them."
"How could we be more visible to potential clients in the finance sector?"
"How can we be ridiculously transparent about our financial results?"
We can't solve every problem we find, so first we'll want to prioritise those that get gathered. We can then take the top problems from the list and work to improve the definition. Anyone who wants to can give notes on the problem statement to refine it. They might suggest ways to make it more clear, valuable, contained or explorable. It may also be valid to merge in other similar problems. Often the problem will initially be written about a symptom, and there'll need to be some digging to get into the underlying problem. Think like a doctor diagnosing a patient.
From all those notes the problem owner will then update the problem statement itself so that others don't have to re-read the full discussion when it comes to the next stage.
Once we've been through a short stage of refining the problem, the problem can be marked as being open for ideas.