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Defining True Business Problems

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Problems are everywhere. Often, it’s our approach and ability to identify them that inhibits solving true problems.

Business Problems can be horrible, painful, expensive excursions that make our lives terrible. 

Could our approach to solving problems be the very reason why problems are so difficult and cause us pain? Are we making problems seem more difficult than they really are? Are we solving the right problems? Or are we just creating more problems? 

For the past 7-or-so years, a large part of my job has been to define, document, and then be part of the process of solving problems. I’ve found time-and-time-again, Solution Success is directly affected by my ability to accurately identify and define the problem.


True Problems

When faced with a problem, our natural tendency is to look for a solution and implement it so that we can move onto the next problem.

If you've been in business for more than 20 minutes, you'll have noticed that this approach continues to cause more problems - purely because the true problem was not defined or addressed.

A problem can be masked or hidden. Defining a true problem refers to the heart of the problem - the real reason issues are being caused or your business isn’t growing.

You can discover the true problem by removing problem perception and assumption, thus providing clarity and understanding for business leaders and decision-makers. This framework is centred around the idea that true problem definition will result in the right solution and reduce friction in change. A problem can be anything from technical issues to business growth and anything in-between. 


Example: My employees don’t use our CRM

I’m sure many of you have straight away solved this problem in your head. You have a 3 step plan all figured out! Well done! For some of you, that plan might actually work, it would fix the perceived problem defined in a sentence above. 

But for some of you, it will not solve the problem because you don’t actually know what the problem is or if you’ve solved it. You would have made an action which is always a good thing, but have you caused more problems?


Example 2: We met with a CRM salesmen, he showed the features and we implemented a brand new flashy CRM. We did it fast because everyone was upset, we spent a lot of money and time to implement.

I really hope that worked out, but most of the time it doesn’t. Some would say ‘you chose the wrong CRM’ others would cry ‘change management!’ but notice no true problem was defined. There was a perceived problem and a shotgun solution. Most of the time this ends with a team suffering from change fatigue, a CRM in pieces and probably more problems. 

So having seen this many times, I thought I should write some tips for defining the true problem. These can be completed by anyone and can be adapted for any problem! 


Tips for identifying true problems


1. Talk to People

People are often the most important part of the process. The first step is figuring out who you need to speak with. Normally it’s someone who knows a lot about the topic, whether they are a leader or a key user. Try to find a spectrum, from all of the passionate users, business leaders, change agents, resistant users and depending on the problem size (we’ll talk about later) and book meetings or phone calls with them.

Now your goal is to find out what the user actually thinks. This is critical in identifying a true problem. Here are a few tips:

  • Empathy. Empathy represents your ability to place yourself in someone else’s experience. Your job is to figure out why this problem matters so much to the user. You cannot truly do that unless you experience what they experience and imagine yourself in their shoes.
  • Create an environment. Every person responds to environments, so it’s critical to be intentional about creating an environment where your subject feels accepted, listened to and when they leave, they feel hopeful that their problem can be solved.
  • Listen to the user. An obvious observation, but sometimes we can be so set on what the solution is, we don’t even take time to understand the true problem that the user is experiencing. So taking that extra 2 minutes to hear what the user has to say makes a considerable difference.
  • Have an open mind. Consider the idea that your ‘good concept’ of the problem may be completely wrong. You will only find out the truth by asking and approaching the interview with an open mind.
  • Consider Context. Every problem has context, normally business context but context regardless. This could be an initiative in the company or perhaps technical context that has helped cause the problem.

Sometimes you don’t have access to users or they may not want to talk to you. You may need to create incentives, take people for drinks, call at times that suit their schedule or work around their needs, this may be the difference in actually having a conversation that is productive which will lead you closer to finding the problem and then the solution.

2. Let’s Talk Data

Data will provide concrete insight into an issue - as the saying goes ‘the data doesn’t lie’.

That said, while data doesn’t know how to lie, you do need to know how to interpret it. Sometimes not all the data is available, so you have to go digging and use what you can get to form more concrete opinions around the problem.

  • Identify all sources. Identify all sources of data, this could be Google Analytics, a CRM, BI tools or perhaps old school business reports. Try pull as many data points as you can.
  • Context. Sometimes data can trick us to believe certain things that aren’t true, be sure to understand how the data got there. Who entered it in? Why did they enter it in? Was it the full picture?
  • Quality. Data will always be varying in quality. It’s important to identify and note data quality when you’re extracting opinions based on data. If it helps you with an outcome there are many ways to improve data quality, consider running improvement exercises to increase quality.
  • Why you came. For some people getting deep in data and reports can be a wonderful way to spend a day, but it’s so important to remember why you came. Data is there to illuminate your problem and provide context so you can solve it properly, make sure you keep that at the front of your mind.
  • Data always sounds impressive. In many companies bringing any data related stat will blow everyone’s opinions away, but always remember that data is there to help find your problem! Only share useful metrics that help identify to solve your problem.

3. Document the Problem

Now it’s time to gather it all together. 

  • Problem Statement. I find the best way to explain your research is to start with a clear problem statement. Explain why it’s a problem at a high level.
  • Problem Context. During interviews and research, you will have noted the context. It’s so important to describe context when it comes to identifying and documenting the problem. There may be an external problem that is affecting this problem that needs to be represented too.
  • Users. Tell the reader about your key users. i.e. who you interviewed and why you interviewed them, providing context to the problem and who is involved, and why they are affected. This should also speak to helping the reader empathise with the problem.
  • Problem Size. To lots of people, every problem is the biggest problem they’ve ever encountered! This is rarely true, so it’s important to document your problem size. Depending on the company, it could be affected users, projected affected users or income effect etc. Given the nature of the problem, you need to find a way to explain how big the problem actually is.
  • Make it clear and simple. With all your research and learning, it’s important to make it clear to the reader what the problem is and why it’s a problem. Explain why in light detail and reference your research. Remember your job is to have identified the mystery so someone can make an informed decision on what to do next. Keep it simple and remove complexity where appropriate.
  • Stay away from solutions. In this exercise, it’s so important to stay away from solutions. This is very difficult to do but the function of this exercise is to identify the problem, once you know what the true problem is a solution is an easy step and lots of fun!

I hope these have been helpful in some way. Even if they get you a little closer to solving a true problem, to me that is amazing! Hopefully, some of these tips save and make you lots of money and helps your staff in their everyday! 

Good luck!




Defining a true problem is a great first step on the path towards building a killer app or building a website that actually gets used time and time again by delighted users.

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