Problem Definition

What’s Design Thinking Good For?

Let’s face it. If we know what problem we need to solve, like figuring out how to make a piece of software do what we want, or fix a leaky tap, we are experts in searching and finding the answer. It might take the form of a YouTube video, a friend or family member, an online class, or someone we hire to make the problem go away.

When we face a more ambiguous challenge, we can’t just leap to solution. Our focus changes from problem-solving, to problem-finding. We need to examine the problem and learn why it occurs to solve the job we, or the customer is “hiring” the product or service to do. This may go beyond the immediate, visible pain to also include deeper motivations and the meaning this solution in the context of our, or someone else’s life.

What kinds of challenges is design thinking good for?

In the context of business, good challenges are ones where an executive leader has a high priority challenge, where the problem is somewhat ambiguous, and there is no clear person or team accountable for the outcome. This can happen when the solution requires cross-silo collaboration, or if this is a new area of business and no formal organization exists.

How to Break the Grip of the Rip

Years ago, at a beach resort in Dubai, I ran out into the surf, and was suddenly caught in a rip current. Having been a lifeguard for years back in high school, I told myself, “don’t panic, you’ll figure something out.” After struggling for a number of minutes, with the current sweeping me toward an extremely rocky jetty, I finally panicked.

As it turned out, I wasn’t far from the edge of the current. A nearby swimmer pulled me over a few feet, far enough to escape the most severe current. With help, I escaped the grip of the rip. Just in time, too. Back on the beach, the lifeguard saw what was happening and was ankle-deep in the water, rescue tube in hand. Apparently four other tourists had washed against the jetty the previous day.

The norm in most companies is “when you’re stuck, think harder.” This solitary activity requires a lot of time and energy. Worse, it may not result in a viable solution. This is because we get stuck in a fixed way of viewing the problem. We can’t see our own blind spots.

Since it’s summer here in California, and many of us are at the beach, I thought I’d use the analogy of a rip current to illustrate how to escape a rip mindset. Following are a set of steps to help you “break the grip of the rip.”

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What’s Your Problem Really?

A problem well stated is a problem half solved – Charles F. Kettering

All too often, we jump to solution without fully understanding what it is we are solving for.

  • Who are we solving for, really?
  • What is that person’s goal or “job to be done?”
  • What gets in the way of accomplishing this?
  • Why does this happen? (“Peel the onion” or ask the “5 whys” to learn the root cause)
  • What is the impact of this on the person emotionally?

Nailing the underlying hypothesis gets the whole team aligned and mobilized around the most important problem to solve, and lays the foundation for a delightful solution.