problem definition

By Jennifer Turvey, Improvement Practitioner and Coach

A Solid Foundation

The coach’s task during the problem definition phase is to support the problem solver in transforming an apparent problem into the solid foundation of a well-planned project.

If this foundation is shoddy, or is only partially complete, the whole project can topple. Building the problem definition is hard work, requiring observation, research, investigation, and complex thinking.

It’s a journey filled with temptations to cut corners and jump to the more glamorous phases of the project. The coach, who is an observer to the problem solver’s thinking process, must be a guide through and around a minefield of potential pitfalls.

There are three aspects of the coach’s job during the problem definition phase.

  1. Avoiding Common Pitfalls
  2. Keeping It Calm
  3. Being a Precinct Captain

Let’s look closer at each one.

Coaching Problem Statement

“You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation. You must have a solid foundation if you’re going to have a strong superstructure.” – Gordon B. Hinckley

1. Avoiding Common Pitfalls

Any problem solver setting up the problem definition will find themselves face-to-face with attractive shortcuts and appealing flights of fancy. Surrendering can send the project into the pit of death.

Tempting pitfalls during the problem definition phase include:

  • Mistaking a cause or symptom for a problem – also known as “the problem beneath the problem”
  • Not noticing the problem is part of a larger pattern
  • Not examining the situation with your own eyes
  • Neglecting to come up with a verified factual description
  • Jumping to conclusions about causes
  • Jumping to solutions – abandoning the problem definition phase altogether
  • Tying yourself to a course of action instead of staying open to other possibilities – also known as “dying on that hill”
  • Casting blame instead of finding the facts and describing the situation
  • Getting distracted by perfection and expectations

Knowing what to look out for can be a lifeline for a coaching conversation.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

“Good planning avoids the need for fixing up a project that plowed ahead without thought about the potential pitfalls.” – Bobby Knight

2. Keeping It Calm

For an improvement practitioner, a problem to solve can be like the prospect of a birthday party for a one-year-old.

We want to jump into the fray as soon as possible, meet with the team, get to root cause analysis, and begin knocking off the solutions. We have a natural tendency to bring the project to a close and save everyone continued pain and suffering.

The problem definition phase points toward excitement. It also requires care and attention. That’s why slowing a person down can be the biggest job for the coach. Talking them down from the jump-to-solution tree or coaxing them off that hill they’re determined to die on.

Coaches support the problem solver in coming up with the answers. A rush to the solution is often the wrong move and the coach must keep things calm and focused upon the problem solving process.

Keeping It Calm

“Remaining calm in the midst of chaos is a superpower.” – Clyde Lee Dennis

3. Being a Precinct Captain

The coach sits in the problem solver’s cheering section, so to speak.

And from those seats, it’s possible to fall into unconscious bias and miss things. Things like focusing on a symptom instead of a problem, substituting anecdotal evidence for fact, or making hasty generalizations.

Maintaining distance and thinking like an observer to the conversation can help the coach stay aware and steer clear of unconscious bias.

Think of the problem solver as a detective, and the coach is the precinct captain who knows the dynamics of the problem plagued streets of the organization.

Being a Precinct Captain

Sample Questions

Here are some sample questions to help guide the coaching conversation during the problem definition phase.

The goal of this conversation is to help the person arrive at:

  1. A concise and factual problem statement
  2. An accurate current situation
  3. An exciting desired situation which doesn’t promise too much
  4. Agreement on next steps

Let’s look closer at each one.

Sample Questions

1. Problem Statement

Selecting a problem and determining if it’s worth solving is an important first step toward crafting a problem statement.

But even if the problem solver has been discussing the problem for weeks, they probably have only a general idea of what it involves. It’s tempting to think the work is already done.

While focusing on careful thinking and analysis, this conversation also focuses on curbing the urge to cut corners and jump into solution.

Possible questions about the problem:

  • How did you find this problem?
  • How do you know there’s a problem?
  • Have you visited the location where the problem exists?
  • How do you know it’s not a symptom or a cause of a larger problem that should be solved instead?
  • Is it a one-time problem or a pattern?
  • What are its boundaries?
  • What’s its impact?
  • What would happen if we didn’t solve it?
Problem Statement


Possible questions about the problem statement:

  • How did you choose to include what you included?
  • What else might need to be included?
  • What might not belong here?
  • How could it be more precise?

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend fifty five minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein

2. Current Situation

Moving beyond the problem statement, you need to ensure there is a sound understanding of the current situation.

Possible questions for discussing the current situation:

Tell me about:

  • What is happening now?
  • What is the current performance measurement for the process?
  • Who owns the process connected to the problem?
  • How good in the data and documentation for the area?
  • Have there been any big changes to people, process, or equipment?
  • What are possible obstacles to change associated with this problem?
Current Situation

3. Desired Situation

The last step in crafting a problem definition is to articulate a vision of a desired situation.

Possible questions for painting the picture of a better future:

  • What will customers experience?
  • What are stakeholders looking for?
  • What will you use to measure performance?
  • What behaviors will you drive?
  • What will the target performance be?
  • Is there an organization you could use for benchmarking?
  • What best practices might be part of the solution?
Desired Situation

4. Next Steps

Once the coach and problem solver are comfortable with the problem definition, it’s time to identify the next steps.

There might be a few loose ends in terms of refinement to the problem statement, current situation, or desired situation.

Perhaps there are bigger gaps to close. A SWOT analysis on the current situation might be needed. Maybe there should be more input from additional stakeholders.

Whatever work is needed should be an agreement between coach and problem solver.

If the coach and problem solver see problem definition as complete, or 95% complete, then it’s time to discuss moving to the next step – root cause analysis.

Next Steps


Problems don’t come predefined. Moving from an apparent problem to a well-articulated problem definition can be challenging.

The process involves complex thinking and methodical reasoning. There’s always a strong temptation to jump ahead to the more glamorous parts of the project.

In supporting a problem solver through this journey, the coach uses an understanding of these challenges to guide the conversation, while maintaining the objectivity necessary to steer clear of common pitfalls.

Coaching Problem Definition

About Jennifer Turvey

Jenn is completing a one-year professional coaching certification. She currently coaches clients and works as a freelance writer and instructional designer.

She has her Lean and Six Sigma Green Belt and previously worked as an improvement and operational planning practitioner for the State of Colorado.

Jenn studied spiritual and religious experience in her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and is a perpetual student of human development and personal growth.

She enjoys snowshoeing, eating, homebrewing, and drinking a good beer while reading a good book.

Jenn Turvey

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