How we defined the problem in our workshop, plus a plan on a page

I ran a mini workshop as part of a training course   I didn’t really follow the course notes in this exercise so we did not have any standard material to refer back to.

People took notes and photos as we went, but I promised to publish a generic version of what we did.  So here it is.

I give a description of a “plan on a page” and I run through a very basic workshop format to get there – hopefully you will find it useful.

I also provide some links to resources that can flesh things out in more detail or help you tackle bigger initiatives.

Our situation

We had an idea that we wanted to explore and I said I would facilitate a workshop to flesh it out as an example of how a professional would do it.

Unfortunately we had just come back after a coffee break so I was feeling pretty laid back, but none the less we followed a rough structure.  So here is how a relaxed facilitator might facilitate a group who want to tackle a problem.

  1. People raised an issue to solve but, as usual, we were a bit unclear on exactly what problem we were tackling.
    1. I pointed this out by saying “Apparently we want to run an initiative to fix something.  But what is it that we are fixing?”
    2. Then I stood and listened while I sipped my coffee.  People looked at me for a minute and then thought that they should try and answer, so there was a brief discussion
  2. I entered professional facilitation mode.  Or more honestly, I asked people to use a structured approach while I continued to enjoy my beverage:
    1. I said “Hmm … lets workshop that with an approach I found on the internet.  Grab some post-it notes and markers”.
    2. I put some headings on the wall and said “Now add your ideas to these boxes”
  3. I gave them some time and then I said “Great – now put that in a sentence”
  4. It all seemed to work, but we thought it might be good to move from agreeing what the problem was to agreeing that we will solve it
    1. “That might be enough – but we could go one step further – let’s put that in a plan on a page to explain how we will fix it,” I said.
    2. I explained the plan on a page we would use and then gave them time to try it for themselves
    3. “I’m out of coffee – talk among yourselves while I grab another one and maybe a biscuit,” I said
    4. I got myself a coffee refill and came back to see if we had a solution.  I asked people to explain the solution using their plan on a page and each small team pitched an approach that seemed pretty good

In hindsight, I may not have demonstrated the full range of facilitation techniques a professional would use, but we did get the job done and it seemed like a simple, repeatable approach.

What tools did I use?

Then people asked where I got the agenda and where they could find the techniques that we used.

I claimed that I invented all the tools because I am an expert and that they could purchase the playbook from me for a substantial fee.  But then  I broke down under questioning and admitted that I was using freely available tools that everyone can easily access for themselves.

Where the materials and the tools come from?

Anyway, here are the bits and pieces I used:

In step 1 the only technique I used was listening.  People were not sure on what they wanted so I just let them discuss this for a minute or two.  This is necessary so that people realise that they are not yet able to go off and implement something.

In step 2 I used a problem statement from the KBP.Media website. Its a website that has a lot of good ideas and techniques.

With the approach we used, just follow the steps in the following article on creating a problem statement:


I have also applied this approach in a recent blog article as a way to tackle a “catastrophe.”

In step 3 I used the problem statement structure that fell out naturally from the process.  But I explained that this was a starting point for “the overall story of your project.”

Someone asked if I meant agile user stories and I said kind of.  So I reworded the problem as a kind of user story or epic:

  • These people
  • Want a better way to do this
  • Because of this insight or feedback we have

You can turn this into a more robust argument for action if you want to, using an approach like this. But for our workshop we kept it pretty simple.

In step 4 we turned the problem statement into a plan on a page.


Using the seemingly useless version that we did not use

We discussed the concept of a plan on a page.

Apparently some people had seen one before, so we discussed our experiences with it.

Unfortunately, it sounded like some of the people had seen an odd, possibly evil version.

In the evil version, as people explained, you can include the whole plan for a project on one page, but you do this by putting everything you can think of into a single, super detailed page.

Apparently people compress about 20 pages of thinking into one page by using a tiny font and heaps of sections to create a single page that look like the Rosetta Stone.

It sounds like the plan on a page becomes a checklist of different things to randomly add to the page so that nobody can follow the whole story.

You do all the thinking away from the page and then add so much detail that people cannot use the page for communication.

I was disappointed to hear about this because it is not how I learned to use the plan on a page at all.

In fact I am not sure what the purpose of that version is.  Possibly it serves as a token to scare away evil spirits.

The useful version that we used

There is another version of the plan on a page that is designed to help you think something through and then to communicate your thinking to others.

We used that one.

It has the same boxes on it, but the way you use it is different.

We used a very basic version of the “plan on a page” that I have used many times before.

For many initiatives you would then create more information than you can fit on the page.

But you would NOT EVER add all that information to the one page summary.  Instead the plan on a page acts as a leaping off point to go and find more information.

It evolves as your understanding of the problem evolves and as your plan of attack becomes clearer.  But it remains easy to explain to others in a single discussion (or single telling of a story).

So really its purpose is to make sure we are “all on the same page.”

What template did I use?

I thought the really basic version that we used was in common usage but I could not find a link to the exact format on the internet.

So either it is a James King dodgy version, or it is so simple that people use it without thinking it needs detailed instructions … or maybe my google skills need improvement.

Telling the story and using the plan on a page

Telling the “plan on a page” story goes like this:

  1. Find a blank page somewhere and break the page into 6 sections
  2. Start with the current situation.
    1. In our case we used the problem statement that we created earlier but you can use different wording.
    2. Capture the current situation in a sentence or a couple of dot points.
  3. Draw an arrow to the next box.  Discuss what the future will look like if we maintain the current state (ie do nothing).  I call this a likely future but others call it a default future.
  4. Draw an arrow to the next box.  Discuss what a better future would look like. Turn this into a sentence or a couple of dot points.

Now you have a simple story – if people disagree with your assessment of the current state, or the likely (default) future, or the better future, then this is where you should have the argument.

There is no point debating what the best approach is to achieving a future that nobody wants.

This may not seem important, but sometimes I find that people are not on the same page as me.  I find myself trying to solve a problem that others do not actually think is a problem.

You can discuss different futures and then create multiple pages to discuss plans to realise them on separate pages.

But lets assume you can agree on one good future.

Assuming we can agree on what a nice future would look like, then we can discuss how to achieve that future and whether the effort is worth it, compared to just accepting the world the way it is now.

The tool is called a plan on a page because it is all about a plan to achieve a desirable future.

So now we can extend our story to cover our plan of attack.

  1. Draw an arrow to the next box.  Discuss the different approaches you could take to achieving the future you want.  If there are too many then create a separate page for each one.  But generally you will just add a sentence or a couple of dot points to the page you have
  2. Draw an arrow to the next box.  Discuss what you will need in order to carry out your plan.  This might be people to work in the team, time, money, a focus group to speak to or the equipment you want.  But again, just put in the key points as a sentence or a couple of dot points
  3. Finally – what would it look like if you succeeded?  How would you know if you were making progress?  How would you know quickly if your plan was not panning out.  Draw an arrow to the final box and write a sentence or a couple of dot points to describe how you would recognise (or measure) success
  4. Step back and have a cup of tea or coffee. Read the plan on a page by running through each sentence in the order of the arrows.  It should read like a cohesive story.

You should now be able to use the plan on a page for a presentation or a discussion with anyone who cares.  You can also use it to confirm that you all agree with the key points of your plan (ie – that you are “All on the same page”).

Building on this in larger initiatives

That was the end of our workshop, but you could take it further.

If you are feeling agile, then you can do a story map or use a similar approach to break your plan into actionable chunks.  We didn’t go through that in the workshop.

Alternatively you can create a value stream map for the current and future states of something.  But the picture will take up a lot of space.  So it is often better to still just add one sentence to the page and refer to the value stream map for more information.

You can also treat each box as a question or hypothesis that you can investigate if you like.  I recommend doing some experiments using these test cards from Strategyzer.  Then return and see if your plan on a page is still looking good, or modify it.

If your story is more complex or you want to get into more robust testing then replace your plan on a page with some cool kind of canvas.

The other (more complex) approach we took discussed in the course was the mission canvas which works really well for a major non-profit initiative.

Other good choices would be:

Each of these canvases supports an entire, powerful and methodical approach to developing complete solutions to complex problems.

But each also has the great advantage that they are designed to tell a simple story on one page (if you do not add tiny font and 500 sentences in each box).

So you should still be able to tell it as a story in one session. You should also be able to separate the parts of the story you are sure about and the parts you need to validate, analyse or generally explore in more detail.

Each one can also form the basis of a simple workshop to tackle an issue or opportunity in a structured and collaborative way like we did with my simple plan on a page.



3 thoughts on “How we defined the problem in our workshop, plus a plan on a page

  1. Pingback: Problem Statement

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