CLS – Problem Definition

Part of the ongoing HHS Competes Crowdsourcing Learning Series


Why it’s important

A compelling problem statement will make it easier for your audience to help you solve your problem. In fact, the more refined your problem statement is, the more likely it is that the audience will want to help solve your problem.

Things to consider when drafting statement

Polar Bear Problem

Let’s discuss an example. Let’s say you’re looking for new ways to save polar bears. You could simply state to your audience: “We want ideas for new methods to save polar bears.” While this is generally what you want to achieve, it lacks the specificity you are trying to address. Why do you need new methods to save polar bears? It is important to be as detailed in your problem statement as you can without limiting the creativity. A better way of stating the problem is:

“Recent rise in temperature has threatened polar bear habitats, and as a result, population sizes are decreasing. We are looking for ideas for new methods to protect polar bears and prevent further decline of polar bear population.”

This statement better focuses on the problem, enumerates the key issues in the problem, and clearly asks the audience for a solution without limiting their approach. However, it is still not as focused as it can be. You know the old adage “be careful what you wish for, you might just get it?” Well, there is some truth to that in crowdsourcing. If your stated problem is vague, you will probably get vague solutions. When you design your problem statement, you need to know exactly what you want the audience to focus on.

You may find that when you analyze the root cause and try to craft a problem statement you have more than one aspect of the problem that you can focus on. While you don’t want to create a barrier to creativity, you want to help the solvers address exactly what you want them to address. For example, if you know you don’t need solutions to address the rise in the Arctic’s temperature and instead want to focus on the habitat issue, you may want to focus on that in your problem statement. Here’s an example:

“Recent rise in temperature has threatened polar bear habitats, and as a result, polar bears are increasing contact with humans. We are looking for ideas for new methods to prevent polar bears from coming in contact with humans, which can threaten both parties.”

This problem statement focuses attention to the human contact issue and may produce solutions like new fencing mechanisms, bear-proof containers, and local patrolling systems instead of general solutions to environmental preservation. Or if the environmental focus is something you want, be explicit in your statement. With an unfocused problem statement you may receive solutions that you did not want. Instead, you want to tailor your statement in a way the solvers know exactly what you’re trying to address. Then, you can give your solvers the freedom to be as creative as they want within those boundaries.

While there is no such thing as a perfect problem statement, remember, it is one of the first things your solvers will see. So capture their imagination.


Root Cause Analysis

Any problem solving process should include one or more steps to perform what we call ‘root cause analysis.’ Root cause analysis is a process to better understand what problem you actually need to solve for your desired outcome. By identifying the root cause of your problem, you can define your problem statement in a way that attracts the right audience to help solve it. The best solution may likely come from someone completely unfamiliar with your organization’s mission but whose expertise readily applies to the problem’s root cause.

Project Team

How often have you seen the item “form a project team” on a project plan? Who you bring in and how you engage the team is critical to executing on a project. Make sure that your team includes a variety of perspectives and a variety of interests in the competition.

Don’t forget to include the end-users of the competition product. Before making assumptions about what might solve an issue, it may help to explore the thoughts, values, and opinions of the users. If you can, interview them personally.


Iterate. All great solutions take time to evolve, and one way to ensure that happens is to rapidly iterate through problem definition.

Get lots of input on the language. Pass it around to your colleagues, people outside your organization, and others who are likely to give you reactions and feedback to the problem statement.
Avoid unnecessary constraints and requirements. Specify what you want and only want you want. Leave the rest to the imagination and ingenuity of the crowd.

Avoid jargon that your target audience may not understand. If you want the input of a diverse audience, they need to be able to understand the problem at its most basic level.

Final points

A solid problem definition will simplify a complex and important part of running a Prize Competition. Moreover, this is a crucial step that will not only set your competition up for success, but will also help you consider other options. After thinking about the problem, you may want to assess whether or not a Prize Competition is the best method to finding a solution. Remember, it’s ok if the solution to your problem is found somewhere else.