The Importance of Defining the Problem

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the “DEFINE” step in the Design Thinking process. With everything going on in our lives, it’s tempting to speed through this step and start generating ideas and potential prototypes. I’m guilty of this in my own workshops and programs, often devoting only a couple of minutes to defining the problem so that I can get to the more active and engaging ideation stage. But taking the time to properly define the problem at the outset helps ensure that our later efforts in the design thinking process aren’t being wasted. After all, even the most creative and innovative prototypes aren’t going to be successful if they are addressing the wrong problem.

Most of us are pretty good at identifying problems – these are the various challenges, roadblocks, limitations, and annoyances that might stand between us and our desired goals. In terms of career, these problems might be the overall economy, a competitive job market in your chosen field, a less-than-stellar GPA, the need to limit your job search geographically, or certain salary requirements or expectations. 

Before jumping into to ideating solutions to address these problems, it’s worth stepping back a bit to look at the larger picture. Often the problems that we can most easily or readily identify are not really the ones at the heart of the matter. They are problems but they are not THE problem. And for design thinking to work effectively we need to first identify and define THE problem.

To see what I mean, consider the following example:

Say you run a successful small business making prepared meals in your home and delivering them to individual and corporate clients in the city of Baltimore. You love the work, you’ve been delivering 15-20 meals a day and business has been steadily growing, but one day your trusty delivery truck breaks down – this time for good.

Fortunately you do have some money on hand for eventualities like this, so your initial inclination is to purchase another truck. And since your old truck served you so well, you start doing research into replacing your old truck with a newer model. You start looking into various features and weighing the pros and cons of buying used versus new. But this approach defines the problem rather narrowly – “What model truck should I purchase?” or “should I purchase an old truck or a new truck?” – and assumes that the answer to your problem is a truck.

But then you go too far in the other direction and instead you start brainstorming all of the different careers you could jump into next. Do you use the money that you were going to spend on a truck and go to graduate school instead? Or move to California? Or buy a digital camera and new computer and try to make it as a photographer? Now you are defining the problem too broadly – “What should I do for my career?” or “What do I want to do with my life?”  While these can be useful questions to ask, they aren’t really addressing the problem at hand. Remember, until the truck broke down you loved your job and were successful doing it.

What if instead you defined the problem as “given my needs and resources, what is the most effective way to deliver meals to my customers?” This question gets at the heart of the matter – getting your product from your kitchen to your customers – while still allowing you to ideate a whole range of options. Maybe instead of one delivery truck, you buy a fleet of delivery bicycles. And partner with UberEats. And create an option for pickup. And rent a stall at the Saturday farmers market. And pilot a drone delivery program. Now we’re talking. In defining the problem in this way we have opened the door for not just more ideas, but more innovative and even wild ideas that build off of one another.

So next time you are running a Life Design workshop or designing your own life, I encourage you to spend more time on the DEFINE step. While it might not be as active or as Instagram-worthy as the IDEATE step with its wild ideas and brightly colored post-it notes, it’s so critical to the Life Design process.

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