How to Frame a Problem Using a Challenge Map

All innovation begins by asking questions

It is in the attempt to the answer the questions when ideas are generated.  So having the right question in mind becomes essential to ensure the team is pointed in the right direction.  To get to the right question, some thought is needed to frame the problem.

Finding the Right Questions to Ask

An open question will get more results.  However, a question that is too open ended, will result in many ideas that may not solve the problem at hand due to being too general, or uninspired.  On the other side of the spectrum, a question that is too restrictive with too many limiting adjectives or conditions may narrow the focus so much so that people feel their hands are tied. If the focus is too narrow valuable ideas may not come forth.  Correctly using problem framing techniques help the questions being asked to be appropriate. The questions should not be too open ended or too restrictive, yet still focused on solving the initial problem.

The Form of the Question Matters

To begin, ask the base question in the form of:

“How might we” + VERB + OBJECT OF ACTION +”?”

An example may be:

“How might we build an efficient electric car?”

All questions take this form when problem framing.

Create a Challenge Map

An effective way to frame a problem is by Challenge Mapping the original question. This helps generate additional questions, some more abstract and others more tactical. This presents a few perspectives to consider and can help identify specifically what the team needs to focus on. (Download a free copy of the Challenge Mapping Template.)

Place the base question in the center of the Challenge Map in the [Base Question] box.   First focus on filling in the top portion of the template above the template by asking “Why?”   The answer is then placed in a form of a question as discussed above in [Why?-Level 1] box.   Now using the question in [Why?-Level 1], ask “Why?” again.  This answer is placed in a form of a question in [Why?-Level 2] box.

[Base Question]“How might we build an efficient electric car?”



“Because we want a car that does not rely on fossil fuels.” Phrasing the answer as a question yields,

[Why?–Level 1 Question]“How might we build a car not reliant on fossil fuels?”



“Because we want a car that burns clean, renewable energy.” Therefore,

[Why?–Level 2 Question]“How might we build a car that burns clean, renewable energy?”

The last question is more abstract than the base question.  This will allow for more creative ideas to solve the problem. There may be a few answers each time “Why?” is asked. This is okay. This will create branches in the Challenge Map.  Repeat asking “Why?” twice for each chain of thought. Follow all the ideas to their natural end, filling in Level 1 and Level 2.

The other question to ask is “What is stopping us?” This moves down from the [Base Question] in the Challenge Map into the more tactical zone. Again, start with the base question in mind and ask “what is stopping us?” Add the answer in a form of a question to the template just like before with the “Why?” questions but in the [What?-Level 1] box.

So to continue with the previous example,

[Base Question]“How might we build an efficient electric car?”

“What is stopping us?”


“Batteries do not hold a charge long enough.” The resulting question is

[What?–Level 1]“How might we create a battery with a lasting charge?”

Assuming there is only one column of thought, such as in the example, there are four different questions around the initial problem. If branch questions on the Challenge Map were also identified, then number of available questions will increase rapidly.  Review all of the questions on the Challenge Map and select only one framed problem question that resonates with the team as the right question to ask.

A Word of Advice

In generating the “How might we…” questions, be aware that adding too many conditions will be limiting.  The conditions will often be adjectives or other ways of describing the problem. These conditions will make good idea evaluation criteria that are needed later in the innovation process. Hang on to them, just not in the problem framing question.

Time to Generate Ideas

Finding the problem to be solved may be easier than asking the question of how to solve it. Phrasing the question consistently helps compare various questions. It also simplifies the process by highlighting and eliminating unnecessary restrictions and conditions.  Looking at the question from different angles, both abstract and tactical, may uncover a hidden assumption or point the team into a new area of focus.  The base question may be the question chosen to work with.  It is worth the time to validate that there is not a better way to think about things that really gets to the heart of the matter. Challenge Mapping is a simple yet powerful tool to properly frame a question. With a question in hand, the team is now focused and ready to let their imagination soar to begin ideating.

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Daniel Nolan is the Founder & Chief Idea Guy/Principal Consultant at Denovo, an innovation consulting group, where he partners with clients to promote sustainable growth and build innovation capabilities. Daniel developed the Rapid Deployed Innovation System (RDIS) and Holistic Integrated Innovation Framework (HIIF). His company is dedicated to a holistic approach to innovation based on real world consulting experience, psychology of the creative process, and current academic research.

Daniel Nolan




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