Welcome back to our problem mapping series! After we’ve identified obstacles, we’re ready to take an important step: writing problem statements. Crafting a powerful problem statement is like setting the compass on our treasure map—it guides us to the heart of the solution. How does a problem statement do that? I’ll explain.

(Missed the first chapter in the series? You can find it here, or linked at the bottom of this blog).

In the first part of our series, we explored problem mapping and how it helps us make sense of complex challenges. We discovered the Overlap design approach, where empathy and identifying obstacles are pivotal roles in understanding the problem deeply. In the first step, you will have identified parts of the problem and clustered them, reaching a consensus through the naming of each cluster.

The Art of Problem Statements

A problem statement is like the North Star, guiding us in the right direction. It defines the core challenge we aim to address, and most importantly, it identifies who experiences that problem most. When we practice problem mapping, we create problem statements that are clear, concise, and focused by asking: what problem we are trying to solve for whom? Seek this clarity to ensure that you don’t get lost in your hunt for solutions.

Fill in the Blanks

We use a simple format for writing problem statements:

In ___________ (location), ___________ (these people) experience/or face ____________ (this problem).

From Vague to Specific

I originally created this formula to craft problem statements with clients during problem mapping exercises because we’d do this incredible work around identifying the obstacles, but we’d sometimes name a cluster something that felt impossible to solve. 

The naming of a cluster is a really important step for consensus building, but if you title a cluster “The crushing weight of capitalism” for example, it proves difficult to identify solutions. As it turned out in that particular case, the problem statement that emerged was actually about small business owners and their local economies. The problem statement identified a location (urban downtowns), the people (small business owners), and the problem (the complexity of navigating COVID, juggling multiple balls, and being short staffed constantly—in addition to the stress and fatigue of that time.)

How do we solve the crushing weight of capitalism? Yikes.

How do we solve for small business owners, in urban downtowns, who are trying to keep their businesses running, while dealing with the stress of shutdowns, changing customer behaviour, and a constant barrage of new rules and regulations? While that’s still a complex problem, the problem statement structure begins to help us focus our solutions and ideas. 

Framing the Problem

Translating your problem map cluster names into problem statements helps you frame what you’re focused on. It helps you identify who the problem affects, where they are, and what specifically they’re dealing with. Once we have a deep understanding of the problem, we’re empowered to focus our efforts and resources on the most critical aspects of the problem.

In the next and final part of our series, we’ll explore symptoms and causes in the problem map. We’ll uncover the interconnectedness of various challenges and learn how to create a comprehensive understanding of the problem’s landscape. Until then, practice getting specific about what problems you’re solving for whom!