Problems and Problem Statements

In Are Your Lights On?, Don Gause and Jerry Weinberg offer this useful definition of problem:

A problem is a difference between things as perceived and things as desired.

I like this definition because it highlights three important elements of any problem: things as perceived, things as desired, and a difference between the two.

There’s another important element of any problem: The person who is perceiving and desiring things. In order for the difference between things as perceived and things as desired to be a problem, the perceiver and the desirer must be the same person.

A problem statement is a model of the problem, a simplification designed to aid in solving the problem. Like any model, a problem statement differs from the thing being modeled. A good model highlights features that are most relevant to the modeler’s purpose and hides details that are less relevant. A good problem statement highlights problem elements that help solve the problem, and hides details that distract.

Problem Statement Smells

A problem statement smell is any element of a problem statement that makes the problem harder to solve. Some smells attract your attention toward conditions that are inessential to the problem, or that are beyond your influence. Some smells divert your attention away from an essential element of the problem.

Problem statement smells commonly take three forms: additions, deletions, and distortions. Some problem statements combine several smells.


Some problem statements introduce claims and ideas that are not present in the problem itself. These additions can confuse problem solvers, lead to wild goose chases, or otherwise distract from the problem.

Conclusions expressed as facts. I need to give my boss the test results for third-party authorization, but Jeff isn’t done testing it yet. How do you know Jeff isn’t done? What did you see or hear that led to that conclusion? Perhaps Jeff is already done, and is writing up his report right now.

Mindreading. Jeff is just trying to protect his own turf. You have no direct access to Jeff’s thoughts and intentions. What did you see or hear that led to that conclusion? What are two other possible meanings of what you saw and heard?

Solution probleming. The problem is that we don’t have a Wiki for test status. This is a solution in search of a problem. What’s the problem? If you had a Wiki, what would that do for you? Often, the “problem behind the problem” is easier to solve.

Missing standard. Jeff tests too slowly. Too slowly for what? What would be fast enough? How do you assess how fast he tests?


Many problem statements omit important elements of the problem. These omissions can make it harder to envision what a solution would look like.

Missing desire. The problem is that Jeff is only halfway finished testing third-party authorization. That’s the perceived state. What’s the desired state?

Missing perception. The problem is that I need Jeff to finish testing third-party authorization by Monday. That’s the desired state. What’s the perceived state?

Missing problem stater. The problem is that Jeff is supposed to be done testing third-party authorization, and he isn’t done yet. The person who stated the problem is mentioned nowhere in the problem statement. Who is doing the supposing? Whose problem is this?

Missing actor. Some of the items on the backlog seem to have no owner. Rephrase to add an actor: I cannot identify the owner for some of the backlog items.


Many problem statements amplify problem elements, or dampen them, or interpret them in distorted ways. Such distortions, if we take them as truths, limit the kinds of solutions we will consider.

“Can’t.” I can’t ask for a bigger budget. Try: “I choose not to ask for a bigger budget because I want _____.” (Fill in the blank.) What stops you from asking for a bigger budget? What would happen if you asked for a bigger budget?

“Have to.” I have to work this weekend. Try: “I choose to work this weekend because I want _____.” (Fill in the blank.) What would happen if you didn’t work this weekend?

Inanimate agent. The problem is that our backlog just keeps growing. Backlogs can’t just grow of their own accord. Somebody is growing it. Who? How?

Lullaby language. No problem. We should just work weekends until we ship. Words and phrases such as should, no problem, and just tend to minimize the complexity of the problem, directing attention away from important details. Question each use of these “lullaby words” to surface the hidden assumptions. See Jerry Weinberg’s More Secrets of Consulting for further examples of lullaby language.


Sometimes a single problem statement will include a combination of additions, deletions, and distortions.

Judgment. The problem is that Jeff has no initiative. One smell: mindreading. What do you see and hear that leads you to this conclusion? Another smell: missing desire. What do you want from Jeff? A third smell: tacit causation. Even if Jeff had tons of initiative, he might apply it elsewhere, and still not do what you need.

Tacit causation. Customers expect me to remember all of their requests, so I add them to the backlog, and the backlog just keeps getting bigger. The little word “so” suggests causation, but the link between cause and effect is neither obvious nor stated. But there is no law of the universe that says “if customers expect you to remember their requests, you must add them to the backlog.” That’s one way to respond to the expectation. What are some other ways?

Other time or place. Jeff didn’t finish testing third-party authorization. That’s in the past, and you can’t alter that. What problem are you experiencing right now? What need is currently unfulfilled?

Your Turn

Experiment: What other problem statement smells can you identify? How might you remedy each?

Experiment: In my description of each problem statement smell, I describe or hint at some of the problems caused by the smell. My problem statements have smells. What smells can you identify?