Why Problem Identification is the Critical First Step in Every Project

Many organizations think that the most important thing to do when faced with a problem is to solve it as quickly as possible – but they couldn’t be more wrong.

Abraham Lincoln famously once said, “give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

That advice can apply to solving business problems too.              

One of the most important steps in the problem-solving and decision-making process is to identify and define the business problem first. This involves diagnosing the current situation so that you can focus on the real problem and not on its symptoms. And since this critical task doesn’t usually get the attention it deserves, I want to shed some light on how you can identify the problem and why this step is crucial to your success.

The Importance of Problem Identification

There are a number of reasons why you want to properly identify the problem right from the get-go. Without clearly identifying and understanding the problem at hand, you won’t be able to find its root cause. Here are a few more reasons why this is so important:

Get the Objectives, Scope, and Requirements Right

If a project doesn’t start with a well-defined problem, it will be harder to get accurate objectives, scope and requirements. This will often translate into the final solution not meeting the business and user’s needs – because how can you satsify a need if you aren’t truly sure what that need entails? Taking the time to identify the problem up front will lead to a better solution more efficiently than trying to quickly implement the first solution that comes to mind.

Save Time and Money 

Albert Einstein once said, “if I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” 

While that may sound a little far-fetched, it does highlight the fact that properly defining the problem is a must. Moreover, it shows us the importance of mastering the ability to identify and define challenges.   

If you take the time to identify and define the problem before jumping into action, you’ll often be able to provide a solution that meets the unique needs of the organization. Doing it this way will help you solve their pain points more efficiently and save you and your clients time, money, and resources. It’s for this reason that all reputable BA’s place importance on project initiation.

How Problem-Solving is Initiated

Problem-solving is an important form of critical thinking. It’s part of our role as Business Analysts to recognize and acknowledge challenges and opportunities, and commit ourselves to resolving them.  

During this process, we should periodically be asking ourselves, “What problem are we solving and why is it important?” Being clear on the problem and why we are tackling allows us to identify the problem at its root and devise a solution that will most efficiently and effectively meet the needs of the business.

While that’s great, we should acknowledge a very critical question: how are problems identified?

Requested by the Organization 

This type of initiation is often done through some type of request. Usually created by an executive, member of management, a team lead, an administrator, or anyone else who is close to the problem and has identified that there’s potential value in solving it. This could be a manager that sees an issue their team is experiencing, an executive who sees an opportunity to move into a new market or launch a new product, or someone from the IT department who informs the Operations team that the software their company is using is soon going to be irrelevant or unsupported. 

But regardless, various members of the organization who experience or see the challenges or opportunities can put in a request to kick off the problem identification process.


Self-identified problem identification usually occurs through some type of observation on your part. Perhaps in a meeting you hear someone mention that it’s a challenge for them to get data to make decisions, uncover inefficient and problematic processes that coworkers experience in other departments in casual conversation, or hear someone vent that that software they’re using isn’t fulfilling their needs. Many pain points and constraints are often opportunities in disguise. The key is to always be observant of those pain points felt during typical workdays.

Regardless of how the problem is initiated, digging into the root of that problem is an essential process for Business Analysts. Because in order to generate the most value, we must first identify and define the problem. It is only through proper problem identification that we’ll be able to create a plan and truly solve it, providing the much-needed value that Business Analysts are known for in organizations.

– Written by Jeremy Aschenbrenner, The BA Guide


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