Problems are an innovator’s best friend
-Norman Vincent Peale
Problems are great. They’re the essence of an interesting life. No intriguing story, useful product or innovative solution has ever been birthed from things working as they should. As innovators, problems are our bread and butter and turning them into opportunities is what we do best.
In order to do this effectively, we need to know what the problem is. A vague problem is an unsolvable problem because if you don’t know what the issue is, how can you tell if you’ve solved it? To this end, let’s unpack the key things you should consider when defining a problem to make sure you can turn it into a valuable opportunity.
Innovation is often elevated to the world stage at a scale which can feel unattainable to the average person. After all, it’s easy to see how the Apples, Microsofts and Teslas of the world are having an impact. This can make your ideas feel distinctly small in comparison.
There is a temptation to indulge this insecurity when starting a project and attempt to tackle an issue that is far too large to be practical. Trying to solve global warming in a single week is one good example of setting yourself up for difficulties. Natural as it is, it is important to resist the urge to take on the whole issue at once. Your big problem might be completely valid, but can you break it down into more manageable chunks? Being realistic about your capabilities is the first step to successful problem definition and the innovation that follows.
While big problems vague problems are less than ideal, it is also unproductive to narrow your focus too much. The smaller a problem is the easier it is to solve, but at a certain point the effort expended to solve it outweighs the impact of the solution.
When considering this you should be careful not to confuse a small solution with a small problem. Any good designer will tell you that the perfect design is invisible. It may be that a solution with big impact appears small on the surface. Consider the aglet , a device you probably haven’t heard of but makes a significant impact on the daily lives of millions of people. Clearly a balance is required to find the sweet spot of impactful and feasible. So what can you use to determine this if size is unreliable?
One way to find a problem that is worth solving is to consider your customer’s journey and find their pain points along the way. ‘Customer’ is a loose term in this context. It might be your client, your user or your boss. However you describe them, you want to think about the person or people who will have a direct interaction with the product, service or experience you are trying to optimise.
Once you have their journey mapped out from start to finish, think about which parts of the process could be better, or smoother or replaced altogether. You might find it useful to talk to your ‘customers’ about which elements they find frustrating, confusing or difficult. This is a good way to ensure that your problem is something that will actually have an impact without getting stuck on the higher level issues.
By this stage you should have a good idea of where you can provide some sort of value – but what do you do if there are multiple options? It is common for multiple points in a customer journey to warrant some attention but finite resources demand that we choose the most impactful area to focus on. A useful way to categorise problems of similar importance is by urgency. Consider the impact of each problem and the cost of waiting to solve it. If the cost is higher for one over the others then that is the most valuable place to focus your efforts. Easy!
Good problems lead to good solutions. Learn to love problems and get to know them properly and you will set yourself up for innovative success.