Writing an effective problem statement

The thought of doing a research project might be somewhat frightening. How will you know what facts to gather without some guiding idea? While there is no “right” way to state a problem, an adequate statement of the problem is one of the most important parts of the project. If you want to solve a problem, then you must know what the problem is.

A "problem" is an interrogative sentence or statement that asks: "What relationship exists between two or more variables?" The answer is what is being sought in the research. In establishing a problem, you are encouraged to consider a broad credible area of business. For example "Should we fire John Doe?" is not sufficiently broad. A more useful and broader are of business might be: "Managers are constantly concerned with the interplay between monetary compensation and worker motivation." Your research question will come from that framework.

Many people equate research with having molars removed. There are several reasons for this: (1) They may not be interested in the problem they are researching, (2) They are interested in the problem, but the problem seems too large, or (3) They are interested in the problem, but don’t know how to go about getting information for their research.

As many people who have conducted formal research (either for their company or for a thesis) can attest, the ability to conduct formal research has great potential for enhancing professional credibility, because it shows that you have the ability to think critically through the elements of a problem, and that you have the ability to test and prove, or disprove ideas through some systematic means. Before you can begin to gather information to help solve a research problem, you have to have some means of clearly defining your direction.

Here are some tips for identifying and developing formal research problems:

  1. Make sure, if at all possible, that your problem area is somewhat UTILITARIAN. That is, it should be at least of moderate interest and use to you. Ideally, the solution or the addressing of the problem should be something that can add to your base of knowledge or business career. Usually if a problem area is of no interest or use to you, the result will be less than useful to anyone else, mostly because we tend to lose focus on thing of little utility to use.
  2. Try to make sure that the problem area is functional. In project planning, PERT charts are often used to determine whether a certain project can even be completed within the feasible time. In the same sense, you have to complete projects within limited time parameters. Make sure that the problem areas you choose are such that they can even be researched within a given time frame (e.g., six weeks).
  3. Narrow the problem area into a significant hypothesis or focused idea. Most problem areas (e.g., The development of labor unions in the Western World) are far too broad to develop adequately within a limited time frame.
    • It is always better to narrow the problem area into a specific hypothesis (ex., The success of organizing efforts in retail firms directly related to the proximity of competing franchises) or focus on a key issue (ex., The decline of non-minimum wage jobs for unskilled workers).
    • In a hypothesis, the writer takes a stand regarding the expected relationship of two variables. By focusing upon a key issue, the writer narrows the scope of the research. Either way, narrowing a broad problem area to a specific hypothesis or issue sharpens the focus for both the researcher and the reader.
  4. The problem area, hypothesis or key issue should be substantive and original, not obvious or innocuous. Some issues are far too unwieldy to develop anything quickly, lend themselves to too-obvious results or lead the researcher into circular arguments that have no definitive potential.
  5. It should be possible to test the key idea or hypothesis with something more than illusory or opinionated statements; it must be testable against actual facts! Researchers should be able to evaluate their ideas with hard historical data or data that can be generated through surveys, experimental data, etc.

A good rule of thumb for developing a research topic might be a “broad problem, but a specific hypothesis, or a narrow test.” This gives focus and direction to both the researcher and the ultimate reader of your report.

More pages