The Big Bang Approach to Problem Definition

The Big Bang Approach to Problem DefinitionThe way a problem is defined guides the way people think about it.

You can never have/experiment with enough tools. I like to experiment with various “problem definition” approaches, as I believe this is the most important step in the innovation process. While there are various ways to define a problem, I think there isn’t a more intuitive way to do it.

This is important because it is a very common innovation issue to jump in before taking time to define the problem/challenge. As Michael Michalko, author of the creative thinking book Thinkertoys, says, “The more time you devote to perfecting the wording of your challenge, the closer you will be to a solution.”

But, organizations misinterpret time allocation strategies such as Google’s famous 20% time it gives its employees to pursue new ideas while at work. They believe it is unproductive because some people may not use that time, while others do. But it’s not the 20% that’s important. It’s the message that it’s OK to dream.

Same goes for problem definition…

Typically, problem definition is an exercise in “how many different ways can we say this?”. An example of approaching a problem this way is reframing “how can we make better decisions about what products to make next?” into “how can we become relevant to our audience through our products?”.

We could develop other questions around this theme to get us thinking in different directions. Below is another exercise you can use to define the problem…

Before I begin any project, I take a step back and ask myself a simple question: What are we really trying to do?

This question is simple, yet effective. It is a rarity to come across clarity of thought, so I use this question to approach a challenge. The resulting answer, is you initial problem statement. It can be as broad as possible, or specific enough to give direction to ones thoughts. The key, is to explore it.

Below is the method illustrated:

The Big Bang Approach to Problem Definition

The Big Ban approach essentially has three steps:

1. Initially define the problem.

2. Think divergently about the problem by asking multiple questions (similar but certainly not limited to those shown in the graphic) that deconstruct or “explode” it.

3. Based on the outcome of that exploration, converge on a crisply defined (and improved) definition of the problem.

The questions that are inside the cloud are just starter points. In combination with this tool, you can use the CIA’s Phoenix Checklist collection of exploratory questions to look at the challenge from multiple points of view.

What you are looking for is a very crisp problem definition to help guide your thinking, while avoiding a common way of looking at a situation/problem.

I picked up this tool from The Innovation Killer, and really like it because it can be used individually as well as in a group. It really forces you to look at a problem from various perspectives, while at the same time helps build your team’s “questioning” skills.

The point: Better questions lead to better answers, and the ability to reframe a problem is one of the innovator’s superpowers. You have to allocate time to broadly defining the problem you are trying to address before the start of any project.

What tools do you use to productively define a problem?

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Jorge BarbaJorge Barba is an Innovation Insurgent and is the Creative Strategist at Blu Maya, a San Diego based Digital Marketing Firm that helps organizations build their online business with strategy development for new products and services. He’s also the author of the innovation blog Game Changer. And lastly, you can follow him on Twitter @jorgebarba.

Jorge Barba




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  1. Jim Meredith on January 22, 2014 at 7:37 am

    Nice approach. One of the guides I have used through most of my career defining the architectural problem to solve is Pena’s “Problem Seeking.” This may be out of print now, but is a great guide to the divergent thinking that you address here.

  2. Jeffrey Guterman on January 22, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Rather than use this tool from a problem-solving perspective, consider using a solution-focused, goal-oriented framework. In some contexts, it might not be necessary to know a lot about the problem in order to work toward goals. So, a Big Big Approach could be applied to goal setting in very much the same way that you have described fro problem definition.

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