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Key objective

Get clarity around the problem you are trying to solve and how you will solve it.

Common problems

  • Starting work before you have set some clear boundaries around the scope of the problem you are trying to solve
  • Deciding on the solution before the problem is fully understood, locking you in to an approach that may not be fit for purpose
  • Not getting input from key stakeholders, experts and end users which could mean you miss critical insights that would shape your understanding of the problem.

Tips for success

  • Use a structured approach to define the problem, which may include behavioural insights, user-centred design, systems mapping or other forms of quantitative and qualitative analysis – this will help you translate a nebulous, ambiguous concept into a concrete issue you can work on
  • Take the time to talk to key stakeholders and get their insights – a workshop can be an effective and efficient way of getting consensus on key problems
  • Use your problem definition to develop a research plan and identify analytical requirements and staffing needs – this will ensure the work of the taskforce is focused on addressing the problem, and that you have the resources you need to deliver advice or recommendations in the given timeframe.

Handy tools

Determine an overarching question that defines the problem

Working out exactly what problem the taskforce is addressing – and what it is not addressing – helps to identify the end goals of the taskforce. An overarching question is a helpful way of setting constraints around the scope of work by clarifying objectives and purpose.

The overarching question should:

  • Clearly articulate key terms and the issue the taskforce is trying to solve
  • Contain an explanation of the purpose
  • Convey a measurable objective to work towards
  • Articulate boundaries to help manage scope
  • Outline how success will be determined.

The problem definition guide provides a step-by-step approach to developing a good question.

For taskforces delivering policy advice, the Delivering Great Policy Model provides a conceptual framework to guide the development of policy advice, and the Delivering Great Policy Starter Kit is a helpful tool taskforces can use to apply the Model.

Image caption: Problem definition guide

Underpin your question with research and consultation

A rapid desktop research process – including previous reports, reviews and case studies – should be undertaken to inform and guide the problem definition process. This can also identify opportunities for the taskforce to add value to what has come before.

It's also important to engage key stakeholders – such as other agencies with relevant policy or program responsibilities, experts and end users – for input and to reach consensus on the problem. A scoping workshop can be an efficient way of getting the necessary people in the room to share their thoughts and agree the shape and direction to approach the problem the taskforce will be addressing.

Your problem definition should guide all aspects of your taskforce set up

Understanding and clearly defining the problem your taskforce will be addressing is a critical first step that should underpin all other decisions in the start-up phase of the taskforce. Your problem definition should identify the objective you are working towards, which will then help you to identify the following:

  • deliverables required to achieve your objective
  • timeframe you'll achieve it by
  • governance structure you need to support your process
  • stakeholders you'll need to engage with to inform the deliverables
  • staff you'll need to meet your deliverables
  • specialist skills or expertise required through the use of external consultants or contractors, and
  • financial and administrative support needed to make it all happen.

The scoping deck template is a useful way of capturing early planning and thinking on these aspects of the taskforce’s focus and operations for discussion and feedback, ahead of drafting the terms of reference.

Issues trees are a useful tool for breaking problems down

Commonly used in the consulting world, issues trees break down big problems into smaller, more manageable "chunks". Once you've developed an overarching question, you may find it useful to develop an issues tree to think through parts of the problem and what questions the taskforce needs to answer to address it.

The issues tree guide and template will take you through the steps of this process, which can be done as part of the problem definition task. A common approach is to structure the issues tree using a 'situation, complication, resolution' framing – this not only provides a logical way of thinking through the problem, but also sets up a narrative that can be used to communicate your findings down the track.

Last reviewed: 
27 January 2021