13 August 2017

The Problem Statement – What’s the Problem?

by Dale F. Spurlin

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
-- Albert Einstein

Solving a problem is the driving reason for Army planning processes.1 Army doctrine requires problem identification in any problem solving process but that doctrine is silent on the format and design of a problem statement. This dilemma poses a challenge for inexperienced staff attempting to produce useful statements that do anything more than meet a doctrinal requirement. The articulation of the problem as a statement directly relates to the type and quality of solutions generated in the problem-solving process.2 To be meaningful, problem statements should express concisely and comprehensively the obstacles to mission accomplishment in a manner that supports solution generation and evaluation. This article draws on concepts used in management sciences and operations research to discuss approaches to military problem statement development and then proposes an approach on problem statement construction that will directly support solution generation and evaluation in Army problem solving.

Identifying the Problem

Problem statement development begins with identifying the problem. All too often, individuals and organizations oversimplify the problem to be solved and immediately move to addressing the “what to do?” and “how to do it?” within a problem.3 “A problem is an issue or obstacle that makes it difficult to achieve a desired goal or objective.”4 To identify the problem, ATP 5-0.1, Army Design Methodology, calls on commanders and staffs to ask two questions: “What is the difference between the current state of the [Operational Environment] and desired state?” and “What is preventing the force from reaching the desired end state?”5 FM 6-0, ATP 5-0.1, and Joint Publication 5-0, Joint Operation Planning make an explicit call to commanders and staffs to identify root causes for obstacles, which focuses on the question of “what?” when perceiving a problem’s elements.

However, not all problems – especially semi-defined or ill-defined problems – have a root cause. Searching for the root cause could lead planners to addressing the wrong part of a problem – or the wrong problem altogether.6 Especially in ill-defined problems, the solution is not so much repairing conditions to a previous level as it is to increase capability or establish a new baseline for operations.7 JP 5-0 emphasizes this aspect of the problem statement, which “identifies the areas for action that will transform existing conditions toward the desired end state.”8 This suggests that planners should follow with the question “why?” to better understand how elements of the environment or context are creating obstacles to mission accomplishment. Answering the “why?” reveals relationships, problem solver assumptions, and bias, moving deeper into understanding a problem and encouraging more creative expressions of the problem – and therefore the solution.9 Despite the difficulty in problem identification, doctrine is vague on how to do it effectively.

Army doctrine implies some effective approaches to problem identification. Defining the problem is a group activity.10 Analyzing the current operational environment (OE) requires multiple perspectives on different elements within a problem. Using Army Design Methodology (ADM) as a guide, commanders and staffs should start problem identification with a thorough analysis of the current state of the OE, covering as many aspects of the environment as possible. Leaders analyze the desired end state for the OE based on mission orders from higher, commander’s guidance, and subject matter expert analysis. The desired end state might not follow the same format or framework as the current end state analysis – part of the eventual problem for the command might be to change a paradigm from one framework or viewpoint to another. Creative thinking approaches are therefore necessary to avoid approaching problems with the wrong viewpoint.

Brainstorming helps avoid patterns or paradigms. This creative thinking approach can reveal not only what is known about the OE but also what is unknown or believed (assumed) to be known.11 It also facilitates identifying linkages between elements within the OE in order to promote understanding and to simplify complex activities and relationships.12 Starting with a divergent approach searching for the novel elements of the environment that impede achieving a desired end state is more likely to yield a more complete and accurate identification of the problem.13 Begin with individuals silently recording their ideas and then share them with the larger group to avoid initial bias and to ensure all members of the group feel they can express their opinions.14

Initially, the planning team should ask the questions, “why” and “what’s stopping us?” to develop the key elements of the problem. Asking “why?” an element is part of the problem can reveal a broader area of friction within the OE while asking “what’s stopping us?” might reveal more details about the problem or additional elements that require asking these same questions.15 This approach provides a guide to exploring the different components of the problem while developing the links between problem elements that will provide a focused problem statement. Military planners familiar with British planning techniques will note a similarity between these questions and the first two questions of the Combat Estimate process. Rather than identifying just a root cause, the “why-what’s stopping us” approach goes further to help identify the layers of the problem to help the team focus on the correct problem to solve.16 What should emerge from these questions are the environmental factors that impede mission accomplishment. Those elements likely compete with one another and for the resources within any possible solution – another aspect of the problem.

The problem should include the tensions in achieving the end state inherent within the OE. These tensions include the desired end states of competing groups and time limits to achieve results.17 Finally, problems generally include conditional components. Problems include actions the command can take, cannot take, and must not take based on many factors.18 Simple tasks become difficult when higher headquarters limits the ways or means to accomplish those tasks. A need to achieve a desired end state before an opposing group achieves its end state might also be a condition of the problem. The problem becomes an amalgamation of the obstacles and barriers between the current and desired end states, and the conditions limiting the achievement of the end state. So, what’s the problem? Drafting the problem statement comes next and it should be the foundation for the remainder of the problem-solving process, but this is not an easy task for many leaders and planners.

Composing the Problem Statement

The problem statement is a concise statement of the obstacles preventing an organization from achieving a desired end state.19 Drafting the problem statement is both science and art in order to achieve a concise statement that will support the rest of a problem solving process. The science is in grouping or clustering obstacles or barriers to mission accomplishment into categories or themes that cover all of the areas identified while framing the problem. The art lies in leader recognition that frameworks and clustering of like items might mask other relationships or bias the organization to solving the problem in a specific manner. As with problem identification, problem statement development can benefit from a diverge-converge approach to address both the science and the art of the problem statement. Leaders should again apply critical and creative thinking techniques to challenge individual biases and preconceived notions on the problem.

Initially, the staff should attempt to arrange elements of the problem with a brainstorming approach, mixing and moving elements into logical categories or themes and then re-arranging to see whether different linkages emerge. Leaders should avoid following a pre-established framework during this phase to avoid bias better. Exploring different groupings of elements might illuminate aspects of the problem not previously identified. Planners then transition to converging the different categories or themes into a written problem statement. The statement should start with, “How should we …” or “How must we …” in order to foster positive, creative thinking in the phrasing and organization of the statement.20

The problem statement should include only the significant elements of the problem framing. In this way, the problem statement becomes concise yet remains relevant to the rest of the problem solving process. It is important that the proposed statement does not discuss what the organization must do. Bias can result from including aspects of the solution within the problem statement.21 Another technique described in ATP 5-0.1 to avoid bias is to restate the problem after the initial draft in a number of different ways to see whether a different perspective or framework yields a different set of obstacles to overcome or conditions to be achieved. Organizing the elements within the problem statement should be creative as well, but this can be a challenge for inexperienced staffs or in time constrained conditions where a standard pattern or framework is necessary; doctrine provides several of these.

The nature or level of a problem might suggest following an accepted operational framework in drafting the problem statement. A tactical problem might follow the Mission, Enemy, Terrain and Weather, Troops and Support Available, Time, and Civil Considerations (METT-TC) structure beginning with, “The organization must …” to address the Mission element. Subsequent portions of the statement then follow with specific aspects of the other variables that make accomplishing the task difficult. Operational level problems might follow a Political, Military, Economy, Social, Information, Infrastructure, Physical Terrain, Time (PMESII-PT) framework; strategic problems a Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economy (DIME) framework; or institutional problems a Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leader Development, Personnel, Facilities, Policy (DOTMLPF-P) framework. The logical framework of a problem statement supports solution generation and tasking organizations to overcome specific aspects of the problem. However, a hybrid of frameworks such as Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, Events (ASCOPE) mixed with METT-TC might be appropriate to avoid unnecessarily constricting a solution set. Going directly to a doctrinal framework, however, might have adverse effects on statement development.

The danger of adopting a specific framework at the outset of problem statement development is a potential limitation to creative and critical thinking in stating the problem – and the potential solutions that will follow. Frameworks might pre-dispose leaders to look for (or dismiss) potential links or elements within framework elements – even when those elements do not exist. Solutions to tactical problems framed with METT-TC might overlook social and infrastructure elements that ASCOPE or PMESII-PT might illuminate. When possible, the application of a framework should be done after drafting the problem statement as a verification of what the staff developed in problem framing and multiple frameworks might be tested.

Nonetheless, leaders might opt to use one or more Army frameworks to guide an inexperienced staff, to meet time constraints, or to ensure the problem statement accounts for all variables within the OE based on an assessment of the type of problem being studied. The problem statement should be comprehensive even as it strives for conciseness. Individuals engaged with developing the problem tend to simplify the statement too much because of their knowledge of the OE developed during problem formulation.22 This could result in planners abbreviating the elements or conditions within a problem statement to the point where others lacking familiarity with the OE or problem miss elements that might play a role in solution development.

ATP 5-0.1 provides an example of the problem statement in a narrative. In that example, the problem statement describes the obstacles and some constraints on the command in a paragraph (see ATP 5-0.1, p. 4-4). The basic elements are apparent: the institutions, capabilities, and personalities that present barriers to the command’s success. It does not follow a specific doctrinal framework like PMESII-PT, but still includes some of the PMESII-PT variables. A shortcoming of the example might be that it does not address the element of time that is normally a constraint in organizational problems.

An example tactical problem statement might be:

How does 2/1 Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) seize crossing sites along the Cottonwood River to support 18 Field Artillery (FA) Brigade fires when wooded and rolling terrain favor the enemy’s defense and security operations. The terrain frequently constricts unit movement to platoon-sized mobility corridors. A hybrid threat enemy composed of fully-manned conventional forces with anti-tank systems and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles as well as an effective guerilla forces operate in territory familiar to them. Civilians are intimidated towards working with coalition forces. Enemy weapons threaten the ABCT’s armored and limited aviation capabilities. 2/1 ABCT must not only seize crossings, but also secure those crossings and 18 FA Brigade’s units during fire missions. The ABCT must have no less than 85% combat power remaining and complete operations within 24 hours before the enemy can reinforce its security zone. 

This statement is around 130 words and includes all elements of METT-TC.

Another format begins with a short statement of the organization’s task followed by critical factors that will affect solutions:

How does 1/1 ABCT stabilize Calico City within the next 60 days while considering: 
An insurgent force with local civilian support operates freely within the city 
Local police are untrained and ill-equipped to secure the population; civilian leaders support 1/1 ABCT forces but are intimidated by insurgents 
1/1 ABCT units with no additional police or engineer support must operate within the populated area 
Narrow streets and densely populated areas prevent vehicle movement in most of the city; extreme daytime temperatures will favor acclimated enemy forces 
Civilians casualties will likely result from direct and indirect fire engagements during daylight hours 

This example is shorter by emphasizing the tensions as well as the obstacles but without complete sentences. Either of the formats could be used effectively to describe the conditions that constrain or prevent the unit from achieving its goals within a timeframe. The next challenge to leaders is what to do with the problem statement besides admiring their handiwork through the rest of the problem-solving process – or worse, shelving the problem statement as a task completed in their problem solving process.

Applications for the Problem Statement

The problem statement does more than just identify the problem to be solved; the problem statement should be a good source for evaluation criteria. This is because the problem statement describes specific conditions or actions that are necessary to solve the problem or that are threats to mission success. The framework and content of the problem statement directly affect the means for solving the problem and how the solution will be framed. This is a function shared with evaluation criteria, which according to FM 6-0 “are standards the commander and staff will later use to measure the relative effectiveness and efficiency of one COA relative to other COAs… Evaluation criteria address factors that affect success and those than can cause failure.”23 The degree that a solution addresses each condition determines how well the solution will achieve the end state. Developing evaluation criteria from the problem statement helps generate useful, comprehensive solutions that do not overlook aspects of the problem. Evaluation criteria therefore have their foundation in the elements of the problem statement, which is another reason to ensure the problem statement is complete and accurate. Figure 1 illustrates how barriers or obstacles within the problem statement can suggest evaluation criteria.

Figure 1. Problem Statement to Evaluation Criteria Links. The figure shows how the barriers within the problem statement can provide potential evaluation criteria. Each barrier should result in at least one criterion to address that barrier in solution development. Source: Author.

Because a solution should relate well to the problem being solved, elements of the problem that a solution fails to address adequately are a form of risk. Leaders use evaluation criteria – not the problem statement – to analyze solutions to a problem in most problem solving methods. Bluntly put, the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) does not reference the problem statement after it is briefed during Mission Analysis. Some means of carrying aspects of what makes achieving the desired end state – the elements of the problem – are necessary to keep the solution and analysis focused.

It is important that leaders have evaluation criteria drawn from the problem statement to ensure the solution narrative describes how the solution overcomes or fails to address each part of the problem. Solutions that fail to reach an evaluation criterion’s benchmark represent an aspect of the problem that the solution did not solve and therefore pose a risk to mission success. Few solutions will address all elements of a problem. Frequently, meeting some of the evaluation criteria will prevent meeting others due to resource constraints. The optimal solution might therefore be the one with the least amount of risk not with the best overall score – the one that best addresses all aspects of the problem to some extent based on the evaluation criteria developed from the problem statement. During analysis and comparison, leaders will need to propose mitigation measures for risks or clearly indicate to the commander risks to mission failure that result from not allocating resources against some portion of the problem as identified through the evaluation criteria.

Finally, the problem statement supports assessment during the Army’s operations process. During planning, leaders should create measures of performance and measures of effectiveness based on the problem statement to gauge how well the organization is solving the problem during execution. However, revisiting the problem – the foundation for the plan in execution – is a good idea as well, to ensure that leaders addressed the correct problem. In complex and ill-defined problems, the nature of the problem can change as a result of the organization’s interaction with the OE. Leaders should therefore redefine the problem periodically to ensure it still fits the current and desired end states as initially developed. New measures of performance and effectiveness might then emerge.


Problem statement development is too important to leave to chance or to shelve after mission analysis. While there is no specific format for a problem statement in Army doctrine, principles within operations research combined with Army doctrine offer a way to draft the problem statement so that it supports generating effective solutions through the remainder of the problem solving process used. Brainstorming elements of a problem can reveal unexpected relationships within a problem, but doctrinal Army or joint frameworks can also help leaders to write a problem statement that covers most elements of the problem.

Good problem statements not only identify the problem needing a solution, they also form the basis for useful evaluation criteria and assessment measures. Start with describing the current conditions and the desired conditions. Group the conditions into categories that allow a succinct description of those conditions. Identify the obstacles to changing the environment from the current conditions to the desired conditions. Write the problem statement in a way that describes those obstacles within each category or group. While not the only way, using an established framework like METT-TC, PMESII-PT, DIME, DOTMLPF-P, or ASCOPE can help leaders ensure no aspect of a problem is overlooked.

Finally, develop assessment criteria (evaluation criteria and measures of performance or effectiveness) based on the problem statement to ensure solutions solve the problem rather than simply describing different approaches to doing a task. Developing a problem statement is challenging but can also reward planners with better solutions in the end.

The content of this article is the opinion of the author as an independent writer and is not necessarily the position of the US Army Command and General Staff College, the US Department of the Army, or the US Department of Defense.

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