Deliberate Innovation
What’s your problem?

My previous posts “Got an Idea? Don’t stop!” and “Brainstorming is Rubbish” have looked at some of the process and pitfalls of idea generation, but perhaps I should have started with the first thing that often gets missed!

Before the creative act of coming up with ideas, it’s important to be able to describe the problem or opportunity briefly, but comprehensively and in terms that are readily understood.

The statement of the problem is essential to a creative problem solving process partly because defining it helps you understand the problem better. It will also serve as the starting point(s) for ideas generation as well as to keep you on brief.

“A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.”  — John Dewey

No ideas yet please

Many of us are aware of the dangers of ‘jumping to solution’ but the expression is in danger of becoming a cliché that’s meaning has become obscured. I’m always amused to hear someone say: “I don’t want to jump to solution, BUT…” as they invariably go on to do just that!

It’s important to get the job of framing the problem done first and to suppress the urge to come up with solutions for the time being. This deliberate act is as important to innovation as the deliberate generation of original ideas.

The early parts of the innovation journey are cheap and the Problem Statement is no exception. Later money and resources can be used at an alarming rate when developing solutions for delivery so why not spend some time making sure you’ve explored properly early on.

For a great creative problem solving process developed at the University of Nottingham check out this book Ingenuity in Practice: A Guide for Clear Thinking

“It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”    – Gilbert K. Chesterton

Check your problem statement by asking:

Has the analysis been done?

Just because this blog is usually about the creative process, please don’t imagine that methodical root cause analysis isn’t needed.

Why are you doing this?

Use the question “Why?” iteratively to get to the bottom of the real need for a solution. What is the real outcome you’re chasing?

Could the problem be broken down into more than one smaller issues?

They might interact with each other but could they be better dealt with by looking at them separately?

Have you got the scope right?

Too many restricting parameters will leave you only able to reinvent a version of what you already know isn’t working. Too few will leave you prone to go off-brief and create something irrelevant.

Could the problem be seen as an opportunity?

I use the words problem and opportunity interchangeably in this context and if your problem can be rephrased as an opportunity this might provoke different thinking.

What are the actual constraints?

Challenge each constraint especially the really obvious ones to make sure they’re real and not assumed. Can they be pushed or tightened? Have any constraints crept in there that could be avoided?

How many ways could the problem be reframed?

There is no need for one ‘perfect’ statement and having a selection will give you different places to start your creative thought process.

Is your problem really a solution masquerading as a problem?

This might seem like an odd question, but surprisingly frequently I am asked by people to help them look at a problem which has been so narrowly stated as to only allow one solution. In fact the only problem is how to deliver the solution someone else has come up with (even though it’s difficult to implement and doesn’t solve the issue!).

“The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.”      — Albert Einstein

What questions do you ask when working out a problem statement?  Has anything above prompted a query for you?  I’d love to hear about either so feel free to comment below.

Will Woodward


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