Creative Thinkers Zoom Out

Imagine you have just been gathered together into a brainstorming workshop. Entering the room you notice all the usual props; blackboards, beanbag chat zones, sticky notes, executive toys, even craft boxes for constructing IDEO styled paper prototypes…the brief:

“How can we take a residential home off grid?”

Almost immediately your mind starts swirling with ideas; solar power, wind turbines, bio-lights…You’ve been thinking about these ideas for a while and finally you’ll get a chance to put them all together. Others in the room start writing on blackboards or constructing prototypes out of cardboard tubes whilst some are engrossed in discussion. But wait…what is the real problem here and why has everyone started solving it already?

In this and many sessions like it, creativity is replaced with the soap box. Participants race ahead with what they think the problem is, quickly recalling all the solutions they have already come up with in the hope that some of them might fit. We forget that everyone in the room will have understood the problem slightly differently, bringing their own pet projects and assumptions with them. Rather than setting the stage for creativity we have set the stage for regurgitation. Here are some steps to help set the stage for creativity, acknowledging our assumptions, taking in the big picture and coming to agreement on what the real problem is without specifying any one particular solution.

Acknowledge your Assumptions

What do you know about the problem as soon as you read it? What do you take for granted and what do you just know? In this exercise we will list out our assumptions for all to see:

1. Identify the key attributes in the problem statement. In this case we have (i) a residential home, and (ii) going off grid.

2. Have everyone write out the facts individually. You could use a Star Burst or the more interesting TERMS star to generate a lot of information here, I wrote about this previously in Brainstorming the Question.

3. Team participants up into small groups and have them develop a single consolidated list. Each team could now publish their list, circle the room and refine their list. For more on this, see here.

4. You should now have a number of big flip charts listing out everyone’s assumptions. Everyone has read each other’s lists so you can publish these to the wall somewhere. You’ll be referring back to them as you go.

See the Big Picture

So far you have explored the problem based on what you know. But what about the bigger picture? What other influences are in play here?

In this example, I have started with out initial problem “How to take my home off grid”. I’ve shown some of the initial solutions (the down arrows), and some zooming out.

To illustrate the importance of getting to the underlying problem, I have illustrated two possible alternatives (i) a desire for self-sufficient living, and (ii) a desire for power without having to pay for it. As you can see, we are led to very different problem spaces depending on the underlying problem being solved.

The purpose of zooming out is to move up to a helicopter view of the problem. By generalising problem attributes, or asking why we are solving a problem, we can usually reach some understanding of underlying problem. Here are some different ways to zoom out:

  • Ask why the problem needs to be solved? Find out who will benefit and in what way?
  • Try and generalise specific problem attributes. For example, the problem of developing a more efficient petrol engine could be generalised to developing a more efficient engine.
  • Try to restate the problem in different ways. Often, this can be enough to arrive at a more general definition anyway.
  • Look at the problem space you listed out in ‘Acknowledge your Assumptions’ and try to identify a higher level view of the problem.

Reframe the Problem

By now we have understood the problem space, acknowledged some of our assumptions, and identified the underlying problems that need to be solved. Our goal now is to restate the problem in terms which do not require a specific preconceived solution, after all our goal is to solve the problem and not to develop an existing solution.

In marketing terms all products are defined by their Core Product, Actual Product and Augmented Product. In problem statements we are interested in the core product:

  • Audience: Who is this for?
  • Need: Why do they need it?
  • Benefit: What benefits will they get?

For our off grid home example we might end up with a Home Owner who needs to reduce their power bills and wants the benefit of financial security. Going a little deeper we might explore their needs a little more and define our problem in more detail, perhaps to provide a low capital outlay solution to take them off grid in 6 months.


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