How to Write a Problem Statement

Problem statements most commonly appear in two kinds of documents: research proposals and business proposals. The important elements of a problem statement differ slightly, depending on the intended purpose. Typically, within a business proposal, a problem statement explains the need for an improvement project. In academic writing, a problem statement identifies a gap in the existing research. In this article, we’ll analyze the two types of problem statements and explain how to write them.

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A Research Problem

For many projects in the sciences and humanities, a problem statement appears in the initial proposal used to secure funding for a project. Once the project is complete, academic researchers usually restate the research problem within a published paper. The research problem appears alongside other prescribed sections of a research paper, such as abstract and methodology sections. A good problem statement explains how the research project fits into the existing academic literature. Not only should the research address gaps in existing knowledge, but it should also further the knowledge within the field and inspire more research in the future. The problem should be specific enough that it can be addressed through the collection of data or empirical research. 

Usually, an academic researcher tries to write a concise problem statement, ranging from 100-500 words. The researcher may begin by summarizing advances in the field, if relevant. Next, the researcher points out any gaps in the current state of academic research. Finally, the researcher concludes by explaining how further study, or research addressing the gaps, would be useful to the academic field. Sometimes, these stages are described as Part A (the ideal), Part B (the reality), and Part C (the consequences). The problem statement often leads into a discussion of the research hypothesis. Sometimes, if the academic field does not include a “hypothesis” section in papers, the researcher may include a testable research question in the same section as the problem statement. 

When writing a hypothesis or research question, it may be helpful to remember the acronym SMART. Make sure your research centers around a question that is:

  • Specific – You should limit your study to specific issues.
  • Measurable – Real-world measurements should be able to answer your question.
  • Attainable – Be realistic about your access to funding, materials, and study participants.
  • Relevant – The hypothesis or research question must have an obvious relationship to your problem statement.
  • Time-bound – Give a realistic timeframe for the collection of data.

When writing an academic paper, refer to your class notes or publications in your field to get step-by-step instructions for formatting. Most disciplines have norms for structuring research papers, and you should model your problem statement on sample problem statements that have already been published within prominent academic journals. Even within the same discipline, individual professors or publications may have unique expectations for formatting.

A Business Problem

A problem statement for a business analysis or proposal has the same basic structure: ideal, reality, and consequences. Unlike research problem statements, business problem statements can be a bit longer, especially if the creator includes a lot of supporting evidence. The writer usually addresses the five W’s:

  • What is the problem? 
  • When does the current process deviate from the ideal process?
  • Where can process improvements be made?
  • Why doesn’t the current situation offer viable solutions?
  • Who does the problem impact? Who are the stakeholders?

After addressing the questions above, the writer has identified the root cause of an actual problem with the business. The problem may be caused by inefficiency, redundancy, bottlenecks, etc. After providing evidence to support this specific problem, the writer should offer a proposed solution. This solution should only be introduced briefly in the problem statement, especially since the rest of the proposal or analysis will be crafted to provide more evidence to support that solution. 

Dwayne Spradlin, writing for Harvard Business Review, explains, “…Most organizations are not proficient at articulating their problems clearly and concisely. Many have considerable difficulty even identifying which problems are crucial to their missions and strategies.” By helping businesses to identify a crucial problem, a consultant may improve the businesses outcomes. Identifying the best problem may be more influential than providing great solutions in a business proposal. 

Similarly, experts advise start-ups to focus on the problems experienced by their potential customers. Kevin Sandlin, writing for General Assembly, describes the Lean Startup Methodology, saying, “The goal of the problem statement is to very clearly demonstrate empathy with the pain that your target customer experiences every day.” Whether you address an audience of businesses or consumers, your problem statement can introduce an important obstacle that stands between your intended audience and the ideal experience. 

Other Uses for a Problem Statement

Practical problem statements appear as part of government proposals, grant proposals, improvement plans, non-academic research, and other formal documents. A problem statement can be written about any topic, from healthcare to the performing arts. A well-written problem statement must address the differences between the current situation and the ideal. The writer should provide evidence that describes the negative impact of the problem and explains how it is important, expensive, or widespread. After giving additional context for the problem and answering the 5 W’s, the writer should introduce a possible solution. By that time, the reader will be excited to solve the problem. The bulk of the research, proposal, or analysis should give them a clear path to do so.