Why Problems Matter

Shannon Ellis

In this thought piece, strategy and sustainability consultant and trainer Shannon Ellis writes about the power of a well-crafted problem statement in helping an organization strategically respond to the question “How are we currently thinking about the problem we are working to address?” It’s a useful filter and often a first step in CompassPoint’s work with organizations to develop a decision-making framework to strategically guide their actions going forward. 


"Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise." - John Tukey, mathematician

At CompassPoint, we have begun grounding our strategy formation work with clients by first getting clear and concise about the problem the organization exists to resolve. At first blush, this can seem perfunctory: Of course, we know what we’re here to do, just read our mission statement.

But if behaving strategically as an organization is about making and acting upon a clear set of choices, we need a deeper analysis to ground the work. Within the big umbrella of the problem (domestic violence, environmental degradation, and educational inequity, for example) what are we actually trying to achieve and how well are we doing that? We have seen this kind of inquiry net deeper insights and create a more profound look at programming in the context of the specific results we are trying to achieve.

Before coming to CompassPoint, I worked in the domestic violence field for many years. Our mission was clear and concise: “to end domestic violence in Alameda County.” It provided a generic high-level description of the overall results we wanted to achieve but was utterly useless as a strategy screen to sort out decisions to further our mission from those that don’t. I can imagine infinite paths toward that overarching goal, but our mission statement alone did not provide enough guidance on what exactly we intended to do to address itand how those specific approaches would change over time as our understanding of the problem shifted.

Had we dug deeper we likely would have found several ways of thinking about the problem of domestic violence. For example: 

  • Domestic violence is a multilayered issue requiring a coordinated community response.
  • Societal responses to domestic violence do not reflect the realities of survivors' experiences.
  • Serious inequalities and obstacles continue to hinder the ability to obtain justice for survivors of domestic violence.

Had we asked ourselves this question—How are we currently thinking about this problem?—we may have surfaced several insights of strategic significance. First, I suspect we would have identified a wide variety in thinking among staff and board about the issue of domestic violence, which could have had a profound impact on program cohesion, communication, and overall execution of organizational strategy. If we’re not all thinking similarly about the problem, how can we act together in alignment toward its solution? Second, by not asking this question we missed an opportunity to review and assess our programming in light of our current analysis of the problem: Are we doing the most impactful work possible to address this issue given the current environment?

Sometimes, groups we work with are understandably resistant to the framing of this question as a problem, feeling rightfully that we have often over- problematized many of the communities we serve in the sector. This is a crucial concern but I believe that focusing on the problem, as a grounding space for strategic inquiry, does not mean that we’re taking a deficit approach to our work. Instead, it’s allowing us to get clear about what we want to change and therefore to focus our actions on the specific resolutions that we are seeking.

Nonprofits can be powerful agents of social change—shifting thinking, filling critical service gaps, and advocating for larger changes in systems and policies. To embrace this role fully, I believe that organizations need to get very clear about articulating the specific elements of the problems we are here to address. As we focus our work on problem definition as a cornerstone to strategy formation, we recognize a few key assumptions that underlie this approach.

Problems are dynamic and change over time

Sticking with the domestic violence example, we can recognize that the problems of the 1970s (for example, a complete lack of public awareness of domestic violence as a widespread issue, no safety net services for survivors fleeing abuse, and the absence of laws explicitly addressing domestic violence as a unique crime) are not the problems of today. Many of these gaps have been—and continue to be—filled thanks to the tireless efforts of those advocating for the cause.

And yet. Domestic violence, and other gender-based abuse, is still very much with us. Although we’ve filled critical gaps we have not yet chipped away at the core. We’ve had significant results as a movement, but how has the problem now evolved and changed and what does that mean for the current role of domestic violence organizations and the larger movement?

 Having a shared analysis of the problem helps focus our efforts

So much of the social change work ahead of us can feel overwhelming.  It’s often made up of big, complex shifts we are looking to make and very often we’re small, under-resourced organizations trying to chip away at it. In this environment, it can be helpful to develop a shared definition of the problem to both focus our organizational efforts and to see those efforts in the larger context. There’s no “right” answer in developing a problem statement. For instance, the three bulleted statements about domestic violence discussed earlier are all true statements and could all be argued to be interrelated components of the larger issue. Developing and agreeing on a problem statement as an organization, then, does not mean that it’s the only lens on the issue or that we’re ignoring the other components of the issue. To the contrary, it requires us to consider our unique organizational strengths and positioning and confirm which components we are best suited to address. It allows us to leverage our strengths with tremendous, focused power.

Problems can be motivating and inspire us to collective action

Most of us who have chosen to work in this sector are deeply motivated by the promise of making a positive difference in the world. However a generic sense of doing good is often not enough for long-term sustainability in this work. Embracing our work with passion requires that we are clear about our specific roles— as individuals and organizations—in a larger effort, and that those roles are uniquely aligned to our strengths and talents. A problem statement, once crafted and agreed upon, should excite and motivate us. It leverages our purpose and articulates specifically why we do this work. It is the energetic currency that keeps the sector moving forward.


Shannon Ellis is a CompassPoint Project Director specializing  in consulting and training in the areas of finance and strategy.

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