Are you solving the right problem?

Harvard Business Review /

“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein said.

Those were wise words, but from what I have observed, most organisations don’t heed them when tackling innovation projects. Indeed, when developing new products, processes or businesses, most companies aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve and articulating why those issues are important. Without that rigour, organisations miss opportunities, waste resources and end up pursuing innovation initiatives that aren’t aligned with their strategies. Many organisations need to become better at asking the right questions so that they tackle the right problems.

My firm, Inno-Centive, has helped more than 100 corporations, government agencies and foundations improve the quality and efficiency of their innovation efforts. We developed a four-step process for defining and articulating problems, which consists of asking a series of questions and using the answers to create a thorough problem statement. This process is important for two reasons. First, it rallies the organisation around a shared understanding of the problem, why the firm should tackle it and the level of resources it should receive. Second, the process helps an organisation cast the widest possible net for potential solutions, giving internal and external experts in disparate fields the information they need to crack the problem.

Step 1: Establish the need for a solution

The purpose of this step is to articulate the problem in the simplest terms possible: “We are looking for X in order to achieve Z as measured by W.” Such a statement, akin to an elevator pitch, clarifies the importance of the issue and helps secure resources to address it. This initial framing answers three questions:

WHAT IS THE BASIC NEED? This is the essential problem, stated clearly and concisely.

WHAT IS THE DESIRED OUTCOME? This question should be addressed qualitatively and quantitatively whenever possible. A high-level but specific goal, such as “improving fuel efficiency to 100 mpg by 2020,” can be helpful at this stage.

WHO STANDS TO BENEFIT AND WHY? Answering this question compels an organisation to identify all potential customers and beneficiaries.

Step 2: Justify the need

The purpose of answering these questions is to explain why your organisation should attempt to solve the problem.

IS THE EFFORT ALIGNED WITH OUR STRATEGY? Will satisfying the need serve the organisation’s strategic goals? It is not unusual for an organisation to be working on problems that are no longer in sync with its strategy or mission. In that case, the effort (and perhaps the whole initiative) should be reconsidered.

WHAT ARE THE DESIRED BENEFITS FOR THE COMPANY, AND HOW WILL WE MEASURE THEM? In for-profit companies, the desired benefit could be to reach a revenue target, attain a certain market share or achieve specific cycle-time improvements.

HOW WILL WE ENSURE THAT A SOLUTION IS IMPLEMENTED? It is important at this stage to initiate a high-level conversation in the organisation about the resources a solution might require. This can seem premature, but it’s actually not too early to begin exploring what resources your organisation is willing and able to devote to evaluating solutions and then implementing the best one.

Step 3: Contextualise the problem

Examining past efforts to find a solution can save time and resources and generate highly innovative thinking.

WHAT APPROACHES HAVE WE TRIED? The aim here is to find solutions that might already exist in your organisation and identify those that it has disproved. By answering this question, you can avoid reinventing the wheel or going down a dead end.

WHAT HAVE OTHERS TRIED? If the problem is industrywide, it’s crucial to understand why the market has failed to address it.

WHAT ARE THE INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CONSTRAINTS ON IMPLEMENTING A SOLUTION? Now that you have a better idea of what you want to accomplish, it’s time to revisit the issue of resources and organisational commitment: Do you have the necessary support for soliciting and then evaluating possible solutions? Are you sure that you can obtain the money and the people to implement the most promising one?

External constraints are just as important to evaluate: Are there issues concerning patents or intellectual-property rights? Are there laws and regulations to consider? Answering these questions may require consultation with various stakeholders and experts.

Step 4: Write the problem statement

Write a full description of the problem you’re seeking to solve and the requirements the solution must meet. The problem statement, which captures all that the organisation has learned through answering the questions in the previous steps, helps establish a consensus on what a viable solution would be and what resources would be required to achieve it.

A full, clear description also helps people both inside and outside the organisation quickly grasp the issue. This is especially important because solutions to complex problems in an industry or discipline often come from experts in other fields.

Here are some questions that can help you develop a thorough problem statement:

IS THE PROBLEM ACTUALLY MANY PROBLEMS? Drill down to root causes. Complex, seemingly insoluble issues are much more approachable when broken into discrete elements.


WHAT INFORMATION AND LANGUAGE SHOULD THE PROBLEM STATEMENT INCLUDE? To engage the largest number of solvers from the widest variety of fields, a problem statement must meet the twin goals of being extremely specific but not unnecessarily technical. It shouldn’t contain industry or discipline jargon or presuppose knowledge of a particular field. It may (and probably should) include a summary of previous solution attempts and detailed requirements.

WHAT DO SOLVERS NEED TO SUBMIT? What information about the proposed solution does your organization need in order to invest in it? For example, would a well-founded hypothetical approach be sufficient, or is a full-blown prototype needed?

WHAT INCENTIVES DO SOLVERS NEED? The point of asking this question is to ensure that the right people are motivated to address the problem. For internal solvers, incentives can be written into job descriptions or offered as promotions and bonuses. For external solvers, the incentive might be a cash award.

HOW WILL SOLUTIONS BE EVALUATED AND SUCCESS MEASURED? Addressing this question forces a company to be explicit about how it will evaluate the solutions it receives. Clarity and transparency are crucial to arriving at viable solutions and ensuring that the evaluation process is fair and rigorous.

Critically analysing and clearly articulating a problem can yield highly innovative solutions. Organizations that apply these simple concepts and develop the skills and discipline to ask better questions and define their problems with more rigour can create strategic advantage, unlock truly groundbreaking innovation and drive better business performance. Asking better questions delivers better results.

Dwayne Spradlin is the president and CEO of InnoCentive, an online marketplace that connects organisations with freelance problem solvers in a multitude of fields. He is a co-author, with Alpheus Bingham, of ‘The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise’.


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