Innovation is an often-invoked word in addressing business challenges, much like its cliché cousin “thinking outside the box.” Less mentioned is where to start the innovative solution development process. Most of us incorrectly start with generating ideas for solutions. By doing so, we ignore the fact that how a challenge is defined greatly shapes the nature of these ideas and how good they are.
Albert Einstein referenced this when he said that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. While this may seem counter-intuitive because we are all so solution-oriented, proper attention to defining a challenge can generate better solutions.
Before brainstorming solutions, spend time considering the below techniques and how they might help you define the challenge.
Use open-ended questions in your challenge’s definition such as, “In what ways might I…?” This construction of the challenge is superior to “How can I…?” because it assumes multiple solutions while the latter hints that there is only one, or possibly no, solution.
Ensure your challenge’s scope has been appropriately set by evaluating the definition’s level of abstraction. If your challenge’s definition is too narrow or too detailed, swap words in the definition for words that have a broader meaning.
Conversely, if you find the scope of the challenge too broad, swap words in the definition for words with a stricter meaning. For example, “In what ways might we sell more cars?” might become “In what ways might we sell more minivans?” or vice-versa.
Be sure to concentrate on a single objective in your definition.
If you have more than one objective you need to accomplish, create one challenge definition for each objective. A challenge stated as, “In what ways can we build our brand and increase our average ticket price?” is better framed as two questions, “In what ways might we build our brand?” and “In what ways might we increase our average ticket price?”
When defining your challenge, take care to not let any solutions sneak their way into the statement. For example, the challenge “In what ways might I increase our average ticket price by offering product bundles?” contains both an objective (increase average ticket price) and a solution (offering product bundles).
When an apparent solution finds its way into a challenge definition, sometimes the true challenge is the solution itself. “In what ways might I bundle our products?” is the true challenge based on the assumption that bundling the products will increase the average ticket price.
Although assumptions can (and sometimes must) form the basis for defining a challenge, be sure they are valid. Expose all of the assumptions underlying your challenge’s definition and test their validity. Unknown, invalid assumptions can result in misguided definitions for your challenges.
Finally, remove any points of judgment or evaluation criteria from your challenge’s definition. Evaluation of ideas against criteria during the idea generation process can hamper your creativity.
The challenge “In what ways might I bundle our products without increasing packaging costs?” contains a criterion (without increasing packaging costs).
While you may hesitate to toss out a criterion because it is in fact necessary, set it aside until you have finished generating ideas. Ideas that do not ultimately fit within the criterion might help you generate other ideas that do.
Better and more clearly defined challenges allow for higher quality ideas and higher quality ideas have greater potential for forming innovative solutions. To encourage innovative solutions, spend some time properly defining the challenge.
Jason Anderson is director of the Georgia Southern University Small Business Development Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.