A Strategic Planning Approach to Project Management: Start with a Good Problem

Francesco Marcatto24 Apr 19

Managing a project is basically a problem-solving task: from the starting point, which is usually the current situation, you have to coordinate a set of coherent actions which will make you reach the desired goal state.

If you already have some experience in project management, you’ll know that very rarely things go as planned. Indeed, many projects fail or require extra time to be completed due to a lack of focus and coordination.

One of the main differences between an expert project manager and a beginner, is the relevance given to the problem definition phase. While the latter usually rushes into assigning tasks and activities to people and teams, the former starts by carefully defining the problem statement.

Indeed, crafting a good problem statement is the first step for developing an effective strategic plan, that is a plan which clearly defines your goals and communicates the priorities of the project (if you are new to strategic planning, here’s a free science-based guide to strategic planning). This will provide focus and increase motivation in your team, therefore minimizing the impact of some of the most common project and team management issues.

Identikit of a good problem statement

The What and the Why

A well-crafted problem statement tells your team what you want to achieve and why it is so important. Don’t take the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ for granted: even if they seem obvious, take some time to put down the expected outcome and the rationale behind it.

The ‘what’ is important for making your team work towards a common goal, and helping them to prioritize what to do. We all have every day many competing things to do, so knowing the ‘what’ is crucial for prioritisation, because everything will make you closer to the goal will have a higher priority over all the other tasks.

The ‘why’ has the huge benefit of motivating and empowering your teammates. It’s hard to find motivation when a project is described just as a list of tasks. Tell instead your people why should they work hard on something, and give them at the same time a sense of responsibility for the outcome and the freedom to decide for themselves how to reach it.

Set the boundaries

Problem solving works best when you are moving in a well-defined space, and the same is true for project management too. Therefore, in order to bring focus and clarity for all the people involved in the project, it’s extremely wise to set the boundaries of the project first.

Specifically, most projects have to deal with three kinds of boundaries: deadlines, people, and other resources.

  • Deadlines – When should be finished the project? Are there any intermediate milestones?
  • People – Who is involved? Which are their roles? Who is in charge of each activity/deliverable/big chunk of work?
  • Resources – What’s your available budget? Is it flexible? Do you need other resources and if yes, how much is available?


Are you really writing for the others or just for yourself? Are you sure that everyone involved in the project will fully understand the what, the why, and the boundaries? Remember that we, as human beings, are very prone to the curse of knowledge, a widespread communication bias which makes us overconfident that the others will fully understand what we are trying to communicate.

If you want to develop further your communication skills, our advice is to take a look at the Commander’s Intent, a smart framework for team communication which has been developed for by the U.S. Army to help them plan in the face of extreme uncertainty.

Share it!

A well-crafted problem statement is useful only if it is known by everyone involved in the project. Ideally, it should be written in bold on a whiteboard in the common room, so that everyone can see it every day. In most situations, however, this is not feasible or practical, so it’s important that you find an effective way to share it and make sure that it can be periodically accessed by the people involved in the project.

Bottom Line

To recap, to create a well-crafted problem statement, which will bring focus, clarity, and motivation to the people involved in working in your project, you will need to provide a clear answer to the following questions:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • Why is this so important?
  • By when should it be done? (Add other important deadlines too)
  • Who is involved? (and who is in charge of the main activities)
  • How much money and other resources are available?

Finally, take extra care to share it in a way that it is easily accessible by everyone involved.

Remember that each minute spent on developing a well-crafted problem statement is a minute well spent, and will save you from future headaches.

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