Collaborative problem definition

$0 to $1k
estimated cost of external help
  • Scope and plan
  • Scan and research
  • Collaborate
0-2 weeks
estimated run time
0-2 weeks
estimated lead time
Experienced facilitator
recommended experience
Instead of assuming that the problem you’re trying to solve is predetermined, using this technique offers you a way to interrogate the problem itself and collaborate on forming a definition. A group comes together to explore and deeply understand the problem, looking at it from all angles. This builds trust and breaks down tensions, as often the framing of a problem can orient towards particular solutions, putting parties in opposition to it.

In 5 steps...

  1. Convene a group that can offer a diverse range of views and bring different expertise to the table.
  2. Begin by discussing the end point or outcome that is sought to be changed. Try to find agreement on which end outcome needs to be addressed.
  3. Explore all possible causes, and any data available. Lead a fact-based discussion that is grounded in evidence as much as possible. Record sources of evidence cited by participants for later review.
  4. Bring the group back to forming a problem statement. It should be clear and concise, and identify the gap between the current state and the desired state.
  5. Record and distribute the agreed problem statement along with any of the evidence cited but not read during the meeting. Allow participants to provide input after the fact if the group isn’t fully in agreement by the end of the workshop.

When to use it

Collaborative problem definition can be especially helpful in situations of high risk or conflict, as the technique centres on finding shared ground but doesn’t require participants to agree on a course of action. In situations where there are competing interests, it can also assist you in learning more about the situation and why certain views are held.


  • Builds trust.
  • Enables exploration of causality.
  • Can give opposing groups shared ground.
Long term
  • Higher-quality, better-aligned solutions.
  • Increased levels of support and enthusiasm for the project.
  • Better relationships between the project team and key stakeholders.


  • If the project is highly divisive, you will want a strong and experienced facilitator to manage tensions and keep the process amicable.
  • If you do not use the problem statement you have created, you will lose trust with the participant groups.



  • Clearly communicate that you are not looking for answers or solutions in this meeting. People naturally want to solve the problem, so ensure that your expectations are established early on.

During the process

  • If the group is severely divided, continue to push to find the facts on which they can agree. If you can find common ground, it will be easier to build out from there.
  • Have a predetermined format for your problem statement; for example, current state – gap – desired state. Even if you don’t use it, it will help centre the discussion when you start asking the group to collaborate on defining the problem.
  • If you’re struggling to have the group come to a single problem definition, opt instead to try and gain consensus on either the current state issue facts or the future state opportunity. You may need to write your own statement from this later, but if the group can see their work in it, it is more likely to be accepted.


  • Review all of the cited evidence for accuracy. Some participants may be prone to exaggeration or skewing information to win an argument. If it influenced the outcome, you will want to make sure it meets your expectations before you communicate the problem statement more broadly.
  • If you use a problem statement that you created or edited after the meeting, to retain the trust you’ve built, send the new statement out to the group for feedback before distributing it to a wider audience.