Problem Definition for Project Managers

How to Prepare for the PMP Exam Day

As a project management professional (PMP)®, you could argue that your entire existence is all about problem solving. You are given some sort of project charter and are tasked with converting its aspirations into tangible products and services. In other words you are solving the given problem.

On this page:

  1. The Importance of Clearly Defining the Problem
  2. Avoiding Mistakes: Differentiating Problems from Solutions
  3. Causality vs. Correlation: Understanding the Relationship
  4. Techniques for Identifying and Addressing Real Problems
  5. The Role of Stakeholder Management in Problem Solving

The Importance of Clearly Defining the Problem

Because we have been solving problems more or less since birth, we tend to regard problem solving as an innate ability rather than a painfully acquired skill. We tend to rely too much on gut instinct, rather than cold analysis. Because of this, we seem to make two mistakes on a regular basis. Despite our PMP® training, we are prone to mix up the problem with potential solutions. This is clearly seen during the Project Scope Management planning work when we collect requirements for our projects. PMP® courses tell us that all our requirements should be measureable and testable, but they do not tell us that they should not feature elements of the solution.

Avoiding Mistakes: Differentiating Problems from Solutions

Car designer Ewe Bahnsen advised managers never to ask engineers to design a bridge. You should ask them instead to devise a way of crossing a river. In other words, make the problem clear and allow the designers scope to consider the widest possible range of solutions. This is Stage One of any problem solving strategy: are you sure you know what the problem is? The ICT (Information, Communications Technology) world is full of examples where the problem is not clearly understood. Too often software houses are commissioned to install an IT system that will replace an existing manual system. The problem is not that the existing system is manual; usually the problem relates to the manual system being inefficient. However, are the causes of the inefficiencies inherent in the system? If they are, then automating it will only lead to an inefficient computer rather than an inefficient manual operator.

Causality vs. Correlation: Understanding the Relationship

The other issue to consider with problem solving is causality versus correlation. This is a major headache for academic researchers who notice relationships between things but can rarely state that one causes another. For us PMPs®, we have encountered this in our PMP® training during Project Quality Management. The Scatter Diagram seeks to relate two variables. If there is no correlation between them, then there cannot be causality. But if there is a correlation, there is still no guarantee of causality. A lot of medical research shows correlations, but these are difficult to convert into causes.

For PMPs®, we need to ensure that our requirements are clearly stated as problems. This could involve many meetings with the customers as you carry out root cause analysis to determine what exactly the problem is. As Albert Einstein said: “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.”

A technique that helps to identify problems is called TIME which stands for Today (What is the situation today?), Ideal (What would be the ideal outcome?), Measure (How will we measure progress?), Essential (Why is this essential to the business?). Asking these questions can help zone in on what the real issue that needs solving is.

Techniques for Identifying and Addressing Real Problems

Another useful technique is what the Six Sigma people call “Voice of the Customer”. By consulting with your customers, you can determine: their needs and wants, the relative importance of the features of your product or service, the expectations that are fulfilled/unfulfilled by your product or service and what your customers need for increased satisfaction.

The Role of Stakeholder Management in Problem Solving

While all this effort does not get you nearer to coming up with a solution, it does ensure that any solutions will address the real problems to be solved. Gut instinct should not be trusted, especially when dealing with clients from different cultures. Remember stakeholder management from your PMP® exam days? Well the whole idea of the Identify Stakeholders and Plan Stakeholder Management processes is not to make PMP® exam preparation more difficult, it is to ensure that you understand where these people are coming from. As a PMP®, you will need to review input from stakeholders carefully. Some people will froth at the mouth over the slightest issue, while others will hide their main concerns in causal, “oh, by the way …” remarks.

The main thing is to be very clear in your own mind what the fundamental problem is and to agree this with your stakeholders. It will take longer and you might worry that you appear to be dragging your feet. But it is a lot better to make sure you understand what your project is meant to do than to go off on the wrong track.

A problem you might be facing at the moment is not having any formal project management qualifications. As one of the Project Management Institute’s Registered Training Providers, Velopi recommends the PMP® as the ideal qualification for experienced project managers. We host PMP® courses online in our virtaul classroom, supported by an  online PMP® exam simulator to provide the best PMP® exam preparation. For more details, please see our training page or contact us directly.

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