Small Wars Journal

The Problem

Author's Note: I would like to thank the following individuals for helping bring this idea from concept to publication: Colonel (RET) Gregory (Nando) Fernandez, Major Christopher Byrd and Major Crispin Burke.

The United States military wastes an inordinate amount of time attempting to solve symptoms instead of problems. This stems from the inability of leaders and planners to clearly identify the problem.

Step two of the Army’s Military Decision Making Process (Mission Analysis) requires the staff to create a problem statement. This statement helps leaders understand what to change in the existing environment. But in practice, most problem statements not only fail to inform leaders of their environment, but more importantly, fail in identifying the problem. A well-thought-out problem statement identifies the problem(s), and conveys them in a declarative statement (problem statement).  This problem statement explains the problem, why it is a problem, and describes the environment or conditions that exist after the problem is solved.

By definition, a problem statement is not a question. A statement is a declarative sentence that is either true or false. A problem is anything that prevents an outcome from taking place.  Yet, many problem statements begin with interrogatives like “how” or “what”.

The following is an example of an actual headquarters problem statement:

How does the Army best support the Combatant Commanders in order to meet their respective Title 10 requirements?

The word structure in this example is representative of many problem statements throughout the services.  Obviously, it is not a statement; it is  a question.  

In the example, what is the problem? How something is accomplished is not a problem. Why is the Army providing support to Combatant Commanders? What support is being provided, and what are the current support issues? What in the environment needs to change and what should it look like when the problem is solved? Expounding further upon the example might shed more light on the actual problem.

Though there are many methods available to help identify problems, one useful technique is asking “why”. Why is one of the most powerful words in the English vocabulary.   Asking why to everyday occurrences is basic human nature. Humans are genuinely curious and asking why helps to identify and resolve gaps in understanding a particular problem. Some theories such as the “5 whys” specify a number of times to ask why but, there are no set rules.  The intent is to ask why until the problem becomes obvious. The point is to identify the problem rather than the symptoms.

A simple trip to the grocery store reveals a useful application of asking why to discover a problem. Your mission is to buy groceries for a meal but, there are many symptoms preventing you from purchasing the right groceries. Using this example, is the actual problem how you obtain the groceries, or what groceries you obtain?

Of course not! This exercise starts earlier with your inability to get to the store. Why can’t you get to the store? Why is your vehicle out of gas?  When you arrive at the store you do not know what to buy. Why don’t you know what to buy? Why don’t you have a list? Oh, you did not have a recipe? The problem it is not getting to the store, buying the groceries or even what to buy; instead the problem is the absence of a recipe specifically telling you which groceries to buy.

Thus, the problem statement could read as follows: In order to purchase the right groceries I need a recipe that will provide a balanced meal for my family. Though it is possible to explore this example further it should serve as a guide on how to ask why until the problem is revealed. Once the problem is identified it is important to create a concise statement that identifies the problem and describes the conditions that will exist after the problem is solved.      

A problem statement gives the leadership an opportunity to attain a shared understanding of the problem and the desired conditions for resolution. It clearly explains the problem and how it affects the operational environment and describes the operational environment after the problem is solved. It does not address how to solve or what will be done to solve the problem. There are common pitfalls to avoid when writing a problem statement such as being too vague, basing your findings on conjecture, or creating a statement that is too long. Referring to irrelevant issues, not clearly identifying the problem, and not describing the desired conditions when the problem is solved illustrate other threats to construction of effective problem statements.

In an environment of financial uncertainty it is necessary for planners and leaders to address problems not the symptoms of those problems. It is time planners present thoroughly vetted problem statements and not questions. The military does not enjoy the luxury of exploring solutions.  Instead, it must take the time required to identify problems prior to committing resources to solve today’s complicated and complex issues. Additionally, our leaders must challenge proposed problem statements by asking “why” to ensure planners have thoroughly explored a problem. Asking how something will be accomplished or what will be accomplished leads to further confusion. Asking why or using other techniques to explore the issue must become ingrained at all levels of planning.  Problem statements should clearly and concisely explain and define the problem and describe the desired conditions once the problem is solved. This seems relatively easy but in fact it is extremely difficult. 

Taking the time to identify the problem requires discipline and the support of our leadership, regardless of the pressure to push products or initiate action in a rapid fashion.  The task is infinitely more challenging at the strategic level where most problems have several layers of underlying issues and symptoms. An ill-defined problem at the strategic level has a trickle-down effect leading to chaos at the tactical level, and makes success all but unachievable. In this situation only dumb luck will allow success.  As the old saying goes, if you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there. Take the time to identify the problem and make the best use of America’s military resources. 

Categories: planning - MDMP - design


Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 03/03/2013 - 12:48pm

Thanks for this paper, Mr. Lairsey. I <em>very</em> much enjoyed reading it. The main thesis seems basically sound.

Funny, I ran across a quote on zenpundit that fits the zeitgeist of the general discussion:

<blockquote>I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.</blockquote> - from <em>A Study in Scarlet</em>

One room in the attic that has always seemed a bit empty to me when considering planning for the Afghan campaign (I'm a civilian and "layperson" in all of this and may be COMPLETELY WRONG about the emptiness part; it's conjecture on my part) and its evolution throughout the 2000's is the collected or reflected upon history of military planning in the region (West and South Asian countries). Frankly, the COINDINISTA VS COINTRA debate misses some of this, weirdly enough, it is so focused on the Army's future as an institution. A blind spot, maybe?

By this, I mean starting with the military planners of the Truman administration and projected ideas of MidEast and regional security and the use of the old British Indian Army idea of the far west reaches of British India (current day Pakistan, and, in a way, Afghanistan and other 'stans) as a buffer, first from the Soviets, and then as a current day military intellectual "catch all" against perceived threats in or from the region, including relations with China.

So, finally, my question to you or the group is this: is there a historical compilation of these readings collected in one place, is there an online archives one may access, any academic historical piece that basically lays out how the American military--especially the Army--has viewed Afghanistan and the larger region? Who were the key planners from the 50's onward, what do their collected works posit, how has thinking changed, and how were the predictions correct or incorrect?

Thanks everyone. If I find stuff, I'll post it. I know the names of the original planners and some of the position papers starting with the Truman administration but I don't see a collection in one place tracing this evolution and how it may have impacted current thinking. It is still a useful exercise when "leaving" and for thinking about the future of the larger region.

G Martin

Sun, 03/03/2013 - 2:03pm

In reply to by johnny.lairsey

I would submit that to institutionalize anything - especially something advocating an anti-institution philosophy like Design- would devalue it. The institution IS the problem, as Paparone's <em>The Sociology of Military Science</em> posits.

So, what we'd rather- for those who are advocates of the philosophy behind Design (as opposed to the doctrine- or the institution's translation of Design)- have is the institution become more open to non-institutionalized modes of thinking. This would free us - theoretically- from the dangerous group-think paradigms we operate under today.

From my vantage point- I fail to see the Army at large practicing any aspect of Design, minus the fallacious doctrinal steps that pretend to be Design.


Fri, 03/01/2013 - 12:17pm

HB I am a proponent of design but as you point out in your reply the Army is not practicing design. The Army at large is practicing some facet of design and MDMP simultaneously.

I was merely attempting to introduce an aspect of design without crushing the reader with the typical over the top language typically associated with design articles, comments, posts etc. That being said I do design but I present MDMP or in my case JOPP.

To say design is a problem maybe correct but I hope not. A question is; how do those who believe in design help institutionalize it in our culture/doctrine?
I am not sure what the ball is; are you a naval aviator?

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 03/03/2013 - 1:10pm

In reply to by Hubba Bubba

Okay, this is a bit over the top for me because I've never done any of this, but I don't see how the two approaches are necessarily opposed.

If researching, reading, and thinking properly, even with a deterministic approach, one may come across something that throws the initial question or problem set into doubt. This is both deterministic and non-deterministic, linear and non-linear -- all at the same time. The point is to let the doubt come to the surface, and pursue it honestly and with real intellectual vigor.

This happens in medical or biological research all the time. While researching one question, very confident in the importance of the original hypothesis, the researcher stumbles across some quirk that throws the initial thinking into complete doubt. I don't really see the difference between the two, frankly.

Question for the group: why is there so much discussion of theory on military blogs (it seems from my viewpoint) and so little bulking up on essential "middle" details? There is a jump from theory to minutiae but the "middle" details are missing.

Clausewitz (hey, you all told me to read it and I'm a nerd) is just one man struggling to think. That's basically the whole thing. He's thinking and struggling to think and you witness it on the page, you are a witness to one man's struggle with a topic.

???? Am I wrong about this? I wanted to ask this on another thread or article that talked about the feminization on the American military, because if we are going to talk about that topic, we should talk about masculine traits and how they affect the military as an institution. I think the historian Brian Linn does this? (I am NOT male bashing. How could anyone read my series of comments around here over the years and think I don't respect men.)

Hubba Bubba

Fri, 03/01/2013 - 11:05am

In reply to by johnny.lairsey

"The United States military wastes an inordinate amount of time attempting to solve symptoms instead of problems. This stems from the inability of leaders and planners to clearly identify the problem."

Johnny- you are talking out of both ends of your mouth a bit. If you stated the above statement, and immediately launch into step 2 of MDMP, are you not just continuing the madness of applying linear, reductionist approaches to complex, adaptive problems that require strategic "understanding?" Yet you balk at a design approach.

"This article is not meant to explain or describe an element of design. If I were interested in design I would agree with Bob who is spot on in his comments."

You really cannot hold both of those positions as a planner. Either you are willing to explore critically and creatively approaching a complex problem while initially distancing yourself (in some degree) from the immediate "lets do MDMP and solve the problem once we craft our mission statement", or you are in effect professing to do exactly what you find wrong with the rest of the institution.

Perhaps the term 'design' is now a "problem" in that many do not want to be associated with what has become a relatively negative label. I agree, in that each major western military service has bastardized their own interpretation, slapped it in doctrine, and some such as the US Army even branded the steer by calling it "Army Design Methodology- now new and improved, in 3-D!!!!" But the real deal is that "design" is just a holistic, broad bricolage of approaches where critical and creative thinking is encouraged, and group-think/remaining bound to one's own pardigm is discouraged.

"Be the ball" Johnny, be the ball.



Fri, 03/01/2013 - 10:32am

BLUF after seeing every problem statement begin with what or how I was determined to craft an article that challenges planners and leaders to derive a greater understanding of their environment prior to developing a problem statement.

This article is not meant to explain or describe an element of design. If I were interested in design I would agree with Bob who is spot on in his comments. Design begins with a greater understanding of the environment and that is initiated through inquiry. Asking why is an easy method one can use to challenge their understanding and assumptions. It is not indicative of the overall concept.

Morgan yours is an interesting perspective. If your understanding is different than your superiors and you can explain and describe your position and provide a better alternative then do it. Also, as you may know the Army is conducting numerous studies on organizational design and I for one am interested in your ideas of flattening the existing formations.

Bill M.

Sat, 03/02/2013 - 10:21pm

In reply to by Hubba Bubba

Hubba Bubba

Great comments, and while I'm not opposed to using complexity science since in my view it has been validated repeatedly, I'm opposed to the careless use of the term. Seems like every LTC and below out there thinks he or she is dealing with a much more complex world than their predecessors. In many ways life is simplier. One thing that makes our job harder is the culmination of excessive policies, laws, and regulations, but that is a separate rant.

I think the most important thing you wrote is that when we apply JOPP or MDMP and use the deeply flawed COG concept we do solify our perception of the situation and our approach to it. Operational design followers will agree with you, and propose they have a better approach. I'm not convinced their approach is better, it is just a different route to walk into the same trap of self-deception.

You may find the following book of interest. Bill

The Half-Life of Facts

"Just as we know that a chunk of uranium can break down in a measurable amount of time—a radioactive half-life—so too any given field’s change in knowledge can be measured concretely. We can know when facts in aggregate are obsolete, the rate at which new facts are created, and even how facts spread."

"The Half-life of Facts is a riveting journey into the counterintuitive fabric of knowledge. It can help us find new ways to measure the world while accepting the limits of how much we can know with certainty."

Hubba Bubba

Fri, 03/01/2013 - 9:25am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


Concur that the term 'complexity' is overused today. As you know, many of those employing the word are 'bumperstickering' and are only powerpoint-deep on understanding what complexity is versus complicated, intricate, simple, etc.

The more I appreciate complex conflict environments (I prefer the term 'ecosystem' but I find that most are turned off by that term), the more I am respectful of the dangerous, adaptive nature of complexity. Sort of like going to the zoo after you have been mauled by a wild animal; you take a different perspective while most around you gawk at the caged creatures in blissful ignorance.

Grant makes some interesting points; frankly I found his comments far more interesting than the article itself. I have a problem with the word problem, in that they mean different things depending on if you are at an abstract, conceptual, holistic level (the crude term "operational level" suffices for this rant) or whether you are tactical, as you remark above. Do not the different perspectives require entirely distinct words?

We constantly misapply tactical thought to strategic level processes...such as when I encounter DoS, USAid, or other national level agencies working along side the military hammering away at some bastardized MDMP version (whether Joint or strictly Army)- they have already begun to frame everything wrong...thus all of that energy and work ends up committing the entire organization on the wrong azimuth. As we creep further down the road and publish thousands of pages of campaign plans, COG analysis, point papers, OPORDs, targeting cycles, and other doctrinal procedures, we solidify our ability to ever truly change course. We might nudge the aircraft carrier a few degrees in a new direction, but we never really turn the ship in a novel direction. At least I cannot think of a historic example from our history. Okay- I cannot think of an example not involving the overthrow or defeat of a nation where the new political party changed strategies...

One thing you wrote I would disagree with. "rather it is the appreciation that while one's understanding gets clearer the deeper they dig, it is never going to be perfect, and that in the process of digging one comes to see the symptoms more clearly and can thereby shape one's operations for best effect by keeping everything is a more appropriate perspective..."

This goes back to the concept of 'interiority' used by post-modernism and those designers that enjoy that perspective on complexity and knowledge. If an institution merely digs within the boundaries of what it "knows" is the real world, it will never dig in a direction that invites true innovation or discovery; they remain within their own paradigm. For our organizations to break into the 'exteriority' and really dig towards novel discovery, we must breach our self-imposed barriers...and we must allow ourselves to be violently critical in order to actually do this.

Sadly, I find most of the time in our military that even the most gentle criticism directed inwards renders one labeled as "not a team player" or "disruptive thinker that is fighting against our efforts." Thus we suffer along and rant on SWJ blog posts to find therapy.

Hubba Bubba (now in watermellon flavor)

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 03/01/2013 - 6:37am

In reply to by G Martin


I'm not a big fan of "complexity" as it is so vigorously used of late. So for me, my thinking on seeking to understand a problem is similar to the old quote on planning. That it is not the plan that is important, rather it is the planning. Likewise, it is not "knowing" what the problem is that is important ("knowing" anything is dangerous), rather it is the appreciation that while one's understanding gets clearer the deeper they dig, it is never going to be perfect, and that in the process of digging one comes to see the symptoms more clearly and can thereby shape one's operations for best effect by keeping everything is a more appropriate perspective.

Yes, there will always be hunger in the world, but one can solve why there is hunger in some particular place in the world where geo-stategic importance and the plotting of some vital national interest deem one is well served by facilitating some degree of stability. Simiarly there will always be friction between governments and the people (their own and others) who are negatively affected by their governance.

But we do not do geo-strategy, we chase threats.

We do not have clear concise vital intersts any more, we have a laundry list of moral agendas on a par with "solve world hunger."

We do not seek to understand and shape problems, we seek to defeat threats and preserve governments.

We are tactical.

As I was discussing with a very frustrated UK SOF co-worker just yesterday. I think nations learn tactics on the way up, and strategy on the way down. The "good news" I guess for the US is that we are still very much a nation of tactics.



G Martin

Thu, 02/28/2013 - 10:07pm

The great, big assumption here, of course, is that we are able to define problems clearly and correctly. In the spirit of "why"- "Why assume that?" I submit we assume many problems away- and the potential reality of being incapable of identifying problems clearly in any meaningful way is one we seem to doctrinally and culturally assume away. Perhaps more apt is the further possibility that it is by definition impossible for one to define "a problem" in a constructive manner because "the problem" is inherently intertwined with the party attempting to define it. In other words, if a problem falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it- then it isn't a problem...

"Symptoms" of problems - upon deeper reflection- appear to be symptoms of other problems, with infinite regression leading one to nothing useful. In other words, the problem isn't "In order to purchase the right groceries I need a recipe that will provide a balanced meal for my family", it is "In order to get a recipe I have to leave work early, neglect my duty, and risk promotion, future employment, and the opportunities for my family"- but that isn't it either- the "real" problem is revealed: "In order to get a recipe I have to change the organizational culture that forces me to choose between career and family." But, wait- how about taking it further: "In order for me to get a recipe I have to lead a revolution to change the current conventional structure that controls this country." Oh- wait, "In order..." We seem to be convinced that we can somehow arrive at the root causes of our "problems"- and then and only then will we be able to solve them.

There are, however, theories that certain situations do not lend themselves to problem identification- and predetermined courses of action are either impossible and/or are counterproductive. Can we really rule out that possibility? Assume it away with a doctrinal wave of the hand? According to people like Eric Beinhocker and Chris Paparone- among others- certain situations- called "solving world hunger" types of situations- defy ordered and proactive efforts to "solve" them. The root cause of these types of situations are "Adam and Eve" types of events- or "Event Horizons": the root cause was "the beginning of life"...

Biological evolution, however, shows us possible solution sets for these types of situations- sets that do not require a "problem definition" and will not be solved through a conscious predetermined solution plan. Instead they will be solved by emergent forces through many different micro actions that lead to a wholly indeterminate solution that is only recognized as a solution in hindsight. Unfortunately, since our nation and military seem locked in short-term thinking and focus- we will continue to work on "solutions"- even ones backed up by lots of hours spent on "problem statement" thinking- that will actually be seen as problems later on in hindsight. And we seem to be too enamored with our pseudo-scientific processes to turn to a very difficult-to-quantify- much less control- concept like biological change mechanistic theory.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 02/28/2013 - 6:42am

Spot on. The power of "why."

Too often in the military "why" stops at "the commander said..."

Years ago I joined a team at USSOCOM working on an appreication of the Stratigic Environment. In many ways it was a brilliant effort. After months of study and analysis the final compilation of all of the regional efforts was taking place, and then in turn that final rolled up analysis was then summarized into one statement: "The nexus of Crime, Migration and Extremism." Responses to this product have ranged from "Brilliant" to "No Sh@*." My response was simply "why?" I think we stopped a couple whys too early.

Even when one drills past what the boss asked for, one probably still hasn't drilled deep enough to get past the bias of their personal, societal, organizational and national cultures. Finding fundamental "truths" is often a bit of a fools journey. One appears to the rest of the staff who are busily cranking out memos, input to some product or another, Powerpoint, emails, etc to be a bit like Demosthenes...wandering the halls of the command seraching for "why."

Every command needs a Demothenes or two...the problem is that many who assume that role are not equipped for the journey.

Part of the "problem" may be that some commanders feel the need to craft "problem statements" that justify their particular job, mission, boots-on-ground numbers, etc, and end up creating problems where none really exist. Not sure if this is an issue of ego, competence (or lack of), boredom, etc.

Will such issues become more pronounced as money becomes more scarce, & personnel and equipment cuts come at greater speed, forcing some leaders to create problems that only they (supposedly) can solve or address?

As for this part.....

"our leaders must challenge proposed problem statements by asking “why” to ensure planners have thoroughly explored a problem. Asking how something will be accomplished or what will be accomplished leads to further confusion"

....the lower ranking guy asking "why" of the higher ranking guys is generally not a winning scenario. Asking "Why are we looking to justify placing an infantry battalion under the control of corp support group when the infantry battalion is already doing what it needs to be doing regarding route security?" quickly gets one the "evil-eye" as well as the response "Because that's what the commander wants!".

When recommending asking "why", how are subordinate leaders supposed to insulate themselves from the narrow-mindedness and tactical/ operational carelessness of senior leaders who refuse to consider "why"?

Your recommendation is a good one but, as you point out, is extremely difficult especially when considering the hierarchical nature of the military. Such a recommendation seems more suited to a flattened organization and, perhaps, that's where our military needs to go.