So, my friend and occasional provocateur, Claire Burge, has rattled my cage and challenged me to start blogging again. Her tactic was to send me a provocative question to which I would reply. After much delay, here goes dusting off the old WordPress install …
Deconstruction before construction is a core element of design thinking. Why is it important to understand the individual components or challenges before understanding the whole?
One of the most powerful activities within design thinking is framing the problem. Probably more than any other activity, how you characterize the problem you’re solving is going to be the best predictor of whether you’ll come up with anything innovative in the first place. The question is more important than the answer.
Einstein famously said,
If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.
When I teach problem framing, I often use the example that trying to “build a better diabetes meter” will yield decidedly different solutions from “helping people manage their disease.”
In the typical “go do” cultures we exist and work in, we very quickly identify the “thing” we are going to do without taking a step back to understand the underlying “why(s)” we are doing that “thing” in the first place. Is that “thing” even valuable for the person it was originally intended for?
Whenever I am given a directive, or we are kicking off a project, I spend time with the team and starting with the original problem, we ask a successive series of “Why? Why else? Why else?” You can purposely narrow, or deconstruct the problem by asking “How? How else?” This technique is formally called Abstraction Laddering, but the overall purpose is to consider various re-characterizations of the original problem.
Not only is this a worthwhile activity to stretch your thinking about what you’re solving for, you’ll get the added benefit of gaining alignment on what you’re trying to do as a group.
All problems aren’t created equal either. By deconstructing the individual challenges, you can also begin to evaluate which challenges have a higher relative impact to solve for in the first place. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything, so placing a bet on a high value problem will always get my vote.
I like to use the Alternative Limb Project as a great case story in problem framing. What if an artificial limb were an enhancement vs. a replacement?
Even the structure of the questions you ask, particularly when leading into ideation, can have a massive effective on outcomes.