Business Problem Statements vs Opportunity Statements

Posted on October 10, 2022.

Box 1 in the Lean UX Canvas asks teams to write a business problem statement. The purpose of the exercise is to start a new initiative with the work framed as a problem to solve rather than a solution to implement. When work is framed as a solution your teams have very little flexibility. Agility is the first casualty with teams working towards fixed time and scope initiatives. When work is framed as a problem to solve, teams are explicitly asked to do product discovery work. The “answer” isn’t given to them. They have to do research, run experiments, build prototypes and learn their way to the best combination of code, copy and design that solves the problem. 

The Business Problem Statement assumes a system exists

Here is the template we use as part of the Lean UX process to write business problem statements:

[Our product] was originally designed to [play in this space and win in this way]. We have observed [in these ways] that the product isn’t meeting our expectations which is causing [this negative impact] to our business. 

How might we [adjust our strategy & ways to win] so that our customers are more successful as determined by [these measurable changes in their behavior]?

As part of the framing of the problem statement we lean heavily into Roger Martin’s questions in his canonical post, The Big Lie of Strategic Planning. We also lean heavily into a big assumption: that the system you’re working on already exists and that you are improving it. This is true in the majority of cases. Very few teams work on truly new initiatives. Because of that, this framing tends to work well. 

In essence we’re asking the teams to state why they built the product in the first place (e.g., “to make applying for mortgages online dead simple” rather than simply “make money”). We then ask them to add what’s changed in the world and how that has impacted the performance of the product. In addition, we ask them to note how that change in performance impacts the company (i.e., why should we care about it?). Finally, we ask teams to think about a future state where the strategy is achieved – what will people be doing differently in that future reality? 

This template works well most of the time. However, occasionally (and to be honest, it is rare), we work with teams who are truly building something from scratch. In those cases the BPS doesn’t make sense.

The Business Problem Statement template from Lean UX
The Business Problem Statement template from Lean UX

The Business Opportunity Statement fills the gap for new initiatives

Teams building brand new products and services need a different way to frame their work. They still need to avoid prescriptive approaches that limit creativity and agility. In these cases we teach teams to use the Business Opportunity Statement. This template doesn’t assume that a product exists but still forces teams to think of their work in terms of meeting a need for customers. In addition, it challenges them to define success, once again, in terms of customer behavior rather than the “launch” of their idea. 

The Business Opportunity Statement template looks like this:

The current state of [domain] has focused mainly on [segments, pain points, etc.]

What existing products / services fail to address is [this gap].

Our product / service will address this gap by [vision / strategy]

Our initial focus will be [this segment].

We’ll know we are successful when we see [these behaviors in our target audience.]

In this case we’re asking teams to clearly identify the gap that isn’t currently being met in the market. While we don’t ask for a specific set of features that will address the gap, we do ask for the strategic approach the team will take. For example, they may write that their strategy is to deliver their service through a new channel rather than traditional ones or perhaps it’s to target a new demographic that is currently unserved. 

In all cases the BOS asks for behavior change as its measure of success. The goal is discovery, adoption and usage (perhaps, dare I say, revenue?). Sure, “launch” will be a part of that but, as we know all too well, software is never done and so launching is just the beginning, not the end of our journey. 

The Business Opportunity Statement template from Lean UX
The Business Opportunity Statement template from Lean UX

Choose your template carefully

Which template you choose to use to define your team’s work will vary based on your current focus. That said, choose carefully. Many of us want to believe we’re working on brand new initiatives. The reality, especially for enterprise teams, is that you’re not. You’re likely improving an existing product or modifying it for use in a new environment or distribution channel. My advice is to try the Business Problem Statement first. If it doesn’t make sense after you’ve given it a shot, go for the Opportunity Statement.

Have you used either of these templates? Want feedback on your work? Share your completed BPS or BOS in the comments section. 

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