Projects do not just exist to solve problems, they are commissioned to deliver the business benefits and value.

Exploding The Project Myths 5 

Many project methods start with “The problem statement”. This is too narrow a view of projects and leads to sub-optimal behaviour and results.

Too often people try to solve the perceived problem, which is really only a symptom, leaving the root cause unresolved. If you ‘solve the symptom’ you can actually make matters worse as you reinforce the root problem in place.

Also, when you think in terms of starting with ‘the problem’ the natural next step is to think in terms of ‘the solution’ – and off you go solving whatever has been defined as the problem. If the problem is not clear, this can lead to the pursuit of a ‘solution’ that is not actually solving the problem. Then the solution generates its own momentum irrespective of its ability to solve the problem. We’ve seen this too many times.

‘Problem’ thinking is negative thinking – projects are about the future, not the past.


The Real Truth

Projects exist to deliver, enable and support desired business outcomes.

Whereas the initial motivator for a project may be a problem, the first step should always be to define your desired business outcomes – exactly what the new business-as-usual end states will be in the future. And this is not just that the problem has been solved but is a clear definition of the new end states working ‘just right’.

For example, say your Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR) system is failing and becoming unreliable – that’s the visible problem. If you just replace the IVR system with a new one you have not moved forward; you’ve merely replaced one IVR system with another (often at great cost).

However, if you ask, “What are our desired business outcomes in relation to IVR?” your answers may include -

  • greater customer usage,
  • reduced customer time on the system,
  • a reduction in the load on the central system, etc.

These are very different outcomes to just a ‘replacement IVR’.

The IVR problem replacement approach misses all of the opportunities to move forward, make improvements, and generate significant business benefits. (And, assuming you’ll get these benefits with a replacement IVR is just wishful thinking.)

In Conclusion

Projects are about delivering, enabling, and supporting new ways of working, new end states, or desired business outcomes with their associated business benefits and value. They are about realising the future. Problem-solving locks you into the past.


Topics: Project Controls, Value Equation, Benefits Management, Mental Models, Beliefs and Myths, Outcomes Thinking, Path Dependency

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (June 2011) as "Projects Exist To Solve Problems (Myth)"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections