How to create effective problem statements for idea challenges and hackathons

How to create effective problem statements

Problem statements are concise descriptions of an issue that help understand the problems better and come up with effective solutions. They are like navigational compasses – the direction north being your desired outcome. Whether you are conducting an idea challenge, an internal hackathon (hackathon for your employees) or a full-fledged innovation campaign, the problem statement is key in determining the success.

Why do you need a problem statement?

You need a problem statement so that users don’t solve wrong problems or those that do not exist and end up with pointless innovations that have nothing to do with your business. Case in point: Juicero, a $400 wifi-enabled, over-engineered, pointless machine for fresh juices. No wonder the project was scrapped. But bear in mind that this company raised $120 million in funding from multiple venture capital firms including Google Ventures. No matter how big you are, it is easy to overlook the two most basic questions,

  • Are we solving the right problem?
  • Is the problem worth solving?

What is the role of a problem statement?

The role of a problem statement is to clearly indicate the current state of issue, the desired outcome, and the existing gap. Here is a good example, in his recent blog, Richard Branson talks about the global cooling prize that aims to develop a climate friendly residential cooling solution. He does a brilliant job of explaining the problem, the necessity for a solution, and the gap between the current state and the desired outcome.

As our planet warms, we need it more than ever to keep our people cool. Worldwide, by 2030, extreme heat could lead to a $2 trillion loss in labor productivity.

Despite a 100-year runway, the most advanced residential air conditioners have only achieved 14 percent of their maximum theoretical efficiency. Commercial LED lighting has achieved nearly 70 percent of maximum theoretical efficiency. Solar panels have reached 40 percent. I’m no AC expert, but 14 percent seems pathetic.

How to create an effective problem statement

In order to simplify the process and narrow down the problem statement, we suggest defining an overarching theme, followed by a specific problem statement and a set of rules specific to the idea challenge or hackathon.

  1. Define the theme
  2. Define the problem statement
  3. Define the rules

Define the theme

The theme of innovation could be a specific technology, specific business problem or market trend/opportunity.

Here are a few a questions that can help you decide the theme:

  • What is the major technology that could impact your business in the next 5 years?
  • What is your most pressing business issue?
  • What are the emerging trends you would like to capitalize on?

KONE, one of the largest elevator manufacturers in the world, wanted to capitalize on the growing $125 billion modern elevator market. The company identified smart elevators, safety and security, and energy efficiency as the major drivers, and hence chose them as the themes of its hackathon.

Read more about KONE case study here>>

Define the problem statement

The problem statement specifies the particular issue/ problem. The problem statement has to be specific and provide as much context as possible. Here is a brilliant example from the invention platform, Quirky.

Quirky problem statement example

Here, the theme of innovation is wireless technology, and the company has clearly outlined the status quo, limitations, and some inspirational ideas to get started with. This context will provide the foundation for the participants to build on.

One of the crucial things that we have witnessed which impacts the success of an internal hackathon is the problem statement/theme and its relevance to business objectives/problems.

It is important to provide as much context and additional information as possible to help participants come up with innovative, relevant, and feasible ideas.

Here is a mock theme and problem statement.

Note: This problem statement has been framed for a fictitious internal hackathon for IKEA, Australia. However, the context provided is based on real press releases that outline the vision, strategy, and business objectives mentioned by IKEA, Australia.


Example 1 Example 2 Example 3
Innovation theme Evoke positive emotions in customers and enhance customer satisfaction Improve delivery service of IKEA Address the children’s market ( 3 to 12 years)
Context As mentioned by Jan Gardberg, “IKEA is in the business of Emotions. It’s about feelings and emotions; that is the most important part.”

IKEA, Australia, tops customer satisfaction survey.

“We will make IKEA accessible to more people through our parcel service for Central West NSW,” Mr Donath said.

The cost for the parcel service, small IKEA items, is $9. The parcel service is for products that fit the criteria of 14kg with a maximum size of 1.2m x 80cm x 60cm.

Rob Young, IKEA Australia Childrens’ Range Expert, said that the collections were designed to drive conversation around the importance of protecting our wildlife, particularly endangered species.

IKEA has launched new kid’s collections, DJUNGELSKOG & URSKOG.

Problem Statement Create in-store touchpoints that would delight the customer and enhance the way the consumer experiences IKEA products. Create solutions to minimize the item returns and parcel service charges. Come up with more product ideas made of sustainable and renewable resources to educate and inspire young kids.

Narrowing down the problem

Here is a simple tried and tested method of “NESTED WHYs and HOWs” to identify the underlying problem. Here is an illustration of using a series of WHYs and HOWs to craft the problem statement.GE’s mission was to develop innovative and affordable healthcare solutions and the company decided to crowdsource solutions for the same.

GE: Provide high-quality, affordable technology to the people in rural areas


GE: There is a lack of quality and speed of healthcare delivery


GE: Unavailability of qualified and experienced healthcare providers in rural areas and new graduates with very little experience in Primary Healthcare Centers (PHCs) in India.

How are you planning to solve this?

GE: By providing contextual training to the doctors at Primary Healthcare Centres


GE: Develop a contextual learning protocol that will allow the care-providers to learn from the patients they treat.

Here you have it.

The Problem Statement: Develop a contextual learning protocol that will allow the care providers to learn from the patients they treat.

You can read more about GE HealthHack here>>

Define rules/ eligibility

Rules or the eligibility criteria are the constraints laid out by organizers to keep the scope of innovation focused on business, minimize irrelevant ideas, and maintain the standard of submissions.

Lego Ideas allow users to submit new product ideas. Although anyone can submit ideas, the company has well-defined eligibility and evaluation criteria.

For an idea to be selected, it should garner a total of 10,000 votes; 1,000 votes in the first six months, 5,000  in the next, and reach 10,000 in the next six months.

It also restricted the following to ensure submissions are feasible and meet the expected standard.

  • Content made using new part molds is not allowed.
  • IP owned by competing toy companies is restricted.
  • Ideas based on third-party licenses already being produced by Lego are not allowed.
  • Content matter that is objectionable such as alcohol, drugs, religious references, etc is not allowed.


Providing a clear, concise, and powerful problem statement would help you garner high quality, diverse, and relevant ideas, and help maximize the odds of success of your campaign. Here is the summary of things to bear in mind while crafting the problem statement.

  • Current status
  • Pain point
  • Desired state
  • Background of the issue
  • Contextual details
  • Opportunity
  • Accurate supporting data
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