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.