Improve Your Projects with Problem Definition and Solution Definition

Jonathan Browne
By | Updated February 22, 2018 | 7 min read
problem definition

Project Management, in layman’s terms, is how organizations or individuals solve problems. Project Management could essentially be renamed “Problem Solving”, and Project Managers, “Problem Solvers”. Therefore, it is not surprising two key stages in project management are Problem Definition and Solution Definition.

In fact, these steps form part of our 5 success factors for project management improvement.


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Oftentimes, these two phases of project management become diluted into one, with problems are mixed up with potential solutions. If this happens, issues will arise later in the project.

In this blog post, I will explain these two phases and how they are linked. I have also included some self-assessment questions you can use to gauge your effectiveness in the two stages.


Improve Your Projects with Problem Definition and Solution Definition

1. Project Problem Definition

Definition: The group or individual understand and can prioritize the current challenges that they require to improve.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” –  Abraham Lincoln

A project is a plan of work that ideally gets you to the desired outcome. Before a project takes place, you really must think about and define why you are taking on the project. Take Abraham Lincoln’s advice! What are the issues and problems you are having that the project will address?

Most problems are hidden, and it is the symptoms of the problem that you see. It is therefore important to do a proper root cause analysis so that you are not just treating symptoms but curing the condition!

Here at BrightWork our CEO, Eamonn McGuinness, has a simple tip: Ask yourself the five whys. Keep asking the following question of the problem – “But why?” Eventually, you will uncover a solid reason which is the root cause or the condition, not a symptom.

In the 1950s, Toyota Motor Corporation’s pioneer of the Production System, Taiichi Ohno, implemented “kaizen” (a method of continuous improvement). He is said to have instructed his staff to “ask why five times about every matter” as “the root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution”.

Another approach for problem definition is the 5W1H approach:  Who, What, Where, When, Why and How.

  • Who does it effect?
  • What happens, what are the symptoms?
  • Where does it happen?
  • When does it happen?
  • Why does it happen? 
  • How does it happen?


Let’s discuss a real-world example.

An engineering team requested the implementation of a new server from their I.T. department. When asked “why” by the project team, they suggested they hoped to increase production speed by up to 40%.

The project team probed further.

One engineer gave an example of a process that takes twice as long on the current server. When asked if server performance was ever considered as a root cause and investigated by support,  the engineers presumed it had but no one knew who had raised a ticket.

The project was already beginning to take on a whole new direction.

Once contacted, the support team investigated, found, and removed a rogue process and the engineering team saw an immediate improvement in performance,  retracting their request for the new server.

Without this step in the definition process, a needless project could have been completed, introducing unnecessary costs for the engineering team. The engineering team also introduced a new process for handling the investigation of anomalies in their production process.

Once the root causes or problems are identified, a decision needs to be made about which problems to address first. The decision-making approach may differ from one company to another for example; simply using your gut, forming a holistic approach, or group consensus.

When final decisions are made, they should be documented and communicated to the entire team so everyone is on the same page. This phase will form the Problem Statement, a clear and short description of the issues that need to be addressed by a problem-solving team.

This should be reviewed by the team before they try to solve any of the project problems.


2. Project Solution Definition

Definition: The group or individual that has an understanding or can recognize workable solutions to the defined problems.

Solution definition should not take place without the completion of the previous step, Problem Definition. Once the team understands the issues they are going to address first, they can then begin to form solutions.

Solution definition is a description of the work package to deliver the product. There are many variables that will impact what solutions or work will be undertaken; time, resources, budget, technology, skills, and even project management maturity.

The chosen solutions inform the “project scope”, the plan of work needed to complete the project. Project scope management ensures the project includes all the work required, and only the work required, to complete the project successfully.

If work outside of the project scope begins to get added, there is a danger of “Scope Creep” – when minor (or what appear to be minor) changes or improvements to a project build up and have a knock-on effect on the time or cost of a project. For some projects, scope creep is inevitable, but it is essential to measure the scope creep, so it can be managed before it becomes detrimental to the project.


Sample Project Scope Statement

Project Name: Lighting Upgrade to LED

Project Sponsor: Charles Money

Project Manager: Caroline Leader

Date of Project Approval: 19th February.

Scope Description: The New York office will have a full upgrade of all ceiling hung lighting. The existing lighting will be decommissioned, recycled and new energy-efficient LED panel lighting installed. Motion sensors will be installed to switch off lighting in rarely used rooms and auto-dimming control units installed on the south-facing elevations reduce unneeded illumination on sunny days.


Project Deliverables:

  • Decommission existing lighting and recycle.
  • Install new wall-hung lighting.
  • Install motion sensors in rarely used rooms.
  • Install auto-dimming control on south-facing elevations.


Acceptance Criteria:

  • Successful implementation of LED ceiling lighting.
  • Successful recycling of old lighting controls.
  • Successful testing of the automated lighting system.
  • Successful reduction in power supply bill in the first month of >10%.


Constraints and Exclusions:

  • Rewiring is excluded.
  • Wall hung lighting is excluded.
  • The facility manager must be available to the installer team while the project is underway.



  • Budget is approved for €50,000
  • The installer team will be paid in stages as agreed in the contract.
  • All teams will communicate with the facility manager and allow the works to be completed in their areas.



Next Steps: Self-Assessment

Project Problem Definition

  • Question 1 – Have you done a root cause analysis or asked the “five whys” of your current project management problems?
  • Question 2 – Have you decided which project management problems to address first and has this been clearly documented and communicated to the wider team?


Project Solution Definition

  • Question 1 – Do you have a clear understanding of what the project scope for the project will be?
  • Question 2 – Have you recognized that there may be scope creep and come up with a way to manage it?



Image credit 

Jonathan Browne
Jonathan Browne

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