What problem are you trying to solve?

Posted on: August 15th, 2015 by Lou Wheatcraft No Comments

The reason for developing a product is so the customer’s organization can address a problem (issue or threat) or take advantage of an opportunity.  Defining the problem/opportunity needs to be done at the beginning of your project so the problem or opportunity is clearly understood and the expected outcome(s) for the project is clear to all stakeholders.

A common cause of failed projects is a failure to define the problem/opportunity at the beginning of the project.  Not understanding why you are working on a project or why you are developing a product and simply being told to develop a product is like being the captain of a ship and being told to go out to sea but given no destination.

Defining the problem/opportunity at the beginning of the project is important because the absence of such an understanding has an impact from both a customer and developer perspective.

The Customer: The problem/opportunity defines the “what” of the project.  Without the “what” the customer immediately jumps to the “how” (what we call implementation).  When the customer focus is on implementation, “how”, they are not communicating the “what” and “why” to the developers. When this happens, the developer will probably build a product/system that meets the customer’s explicitly stated requirements but fails to meet the intended purpose of the product/system.  In other words, the developer delivers what was asked for but not what was needed to solve the problem or exploit the opportunity.

The Developer: When the developer jumps directly to design without understanding the customer’s problem/opportunity the developer bases his/her design on unvalidated assumptions as to what is truly needed.  Note that by extension, not understanding the problem/opportunity often results in a poorly defined scope, and incomplete and incorrect set of requirements…two things critical to successful design and development.  The result, a product/system that does not meet the needs of the customer.

Robert Frosch, Senior Research Fellow, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and former NASA Administrator stated:   “In my work here, my most frequent refrain is: ‘What problem is it you’re trying to solve? What’s the underlying question?” In my work on the Reports Review Committee of the National Academies I have found that the commonest problems faced by an advisory report at the end are generated by lack of clarity in setting the scope of the question at the beginning.”

Knowing and understanding the problem or opportunity will enable you to explain why your project is worth doing, why the product is needed, and why the product is important to the customer.  Spending time at the beginning of the project to define the problem or opportunity will go a long way in ensuring the product delivered meets the needs of the customer.

Understanding and defining the problem

To understand and define the problem, you can go through the following thought process:

  1. Who has identified the problem or opportunity? Identify who the person or organization is that has identified the problem or opportunity. Often, the person will be the advocate within the organization that has convinced management of the problem or opportunity and has obtained funding.
  2. What is the problem or opportunity? Write a clear, succinct statement as to what the problem is  or the opportunity to be pursued.
  3. Who is affected? List the stakeholders that are effected by the problem or who will benefit by pursuing the opportunity. Besides the advocate, who in the organization has a stake in this project?  Who has a vested interest in the outcome of the project (successful or not), has influence (positive or negative) on matters that affect the project, or will be participating in some way in developing the product?
  4. What are the affects/consequences? How are the stakeholders effected by the problem or will benefit by pursuing the opportunity? What consequences will there be if the problem or opportunity is not addressed?
  5. What would be a successful solution/outcome? Define what the stakeholders would view as an acceptable solution to the problem or a realization of the opportunity as compared to the existing state.  State how the stakeholders would define success.  What outcomes are they expecting as a result of this project?

Identifying the problem your product is to solve is one of the best approaches to determining the real “Need” for the product or system.  From an understanding of the problem the customer “Need” statement can be formulated along with goals and objectives as to the stakeholders expected outcome(s).

Saying that, the proof of the pudding is when you can successfully complete system validation – proving the system your team developed meets stakeholder expectations as defined in the Need, goals, and objectives in its operational environment within the defined drivers and constraints.

If you can successfully complete system validation, the problem or opportunity will have been addressed to the satisfaction of the stakeholders and their needs will have been met – problem solved!!

Comments to this blog are welcome.

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