“A problem well stated is a problem half solved”
-Charles Kettering, former CTO of General Motors and automotive innovator
I’ve worked with hundreds of R&D teams over the past 35 years, and I’ve found that it pays huge dividends to start innovation initiatives with a clear definition of the core problem. This is true regardless of the innovation challenge at hand, from very upstream to immediate market delivery. While that may seem obvious, I frequently see one or more of the following problems occur within an R&D team:
- Focusing on a narrow approach
- Relying on familiarity with particular technologies or approaches used in the past
- Losing sight of the truly big idea; settling for “base hits” in order to move a project forward quickly, when stretch performance targets require an innovation program to deliver “home runs”
These scenarios are typically the result of a problem that hasn’t been crisply defined. Here are 3 key attributes of a clearly defined problem, along with concrete examples.
3 key attributes of a well-defined problem statement
- A well-defined problem statement is functional.
It’s important to define a problem in terms of what needs to be accomplished rather than how (you think) it needs to be accomplished.
For example: one client described their problem as needing a disruptive new process for producing a key product, in order to overcome the cost advantage of a major competitor. However, further discussion revealed that while a process change could be helpful, critical performance attributes of the product itself needed improvement in order to achieve real strategic advantage.
As a result, we helped the team focus on product improvement, while simultaneously making the process improvements that addressed the cost disadvantage.
- A well-defined problem statement opens up possibilities.
Viewing a problem from a higher level allows you to explore many more approaches to finding a solution. Often, what is stated as the problem is really a symptom or the result of something else that is seemingly unrelated. Consequently, solutions tend to be limited to the known and familiar. A properly defined problem opens up the potential for new, different, or unique options to be considered, and creates the opportunity to find simpler solutions.
For example: a product was targeted for reformulation due to consumer complaints of an unsightly residue after use. The team initially defined the problem as needing to find a replacement for the key active ingredient, which had been added in a recent reformulation triggered by new regulations. But this new ingredient was pivotal to product performance. Further digging revealed that the key material itself wasn’t directly causing the residue; instead stability of the overall product was at issue. Identifying this higher order problem – how to keep the formula in a stabilized form - opened up many simpler solutions, including a modified package.
- A well-defined problem statement drives clarity and alignment.
A clear, well-defined problem statement uses technical and scientific language. A vague or jargon-filled problem statement adds complexity and confusion. Technical and scientific language helps everyone involved in the project understand the need, which facilitates alignment across a team, up the line of management, and with collaborators.
A final example: a team of researchers looking for a material with particular properties was prepared to launch an open innovation search. However, they described the required properties in general terms without important specifics, due to the secrecy of the overall project. To refine the problem statement, we focused on the very specific mechanical parameters that were critical to the required performance for a candidate material, and did so in a way that did not reveal confidential information. By choosing the appropriate technical language to convey the requirements, potential collaborators and suppliers from a wider range of fields were able to understand our needs and see how their technology might lead to a successful collaboration.
Before embarking your development team on a multi-month initiative, invest time to make sure you’re addressing the right problem. A well-defined problem statement provides valuable focus that opens up the possibility for new and creative solutions. When you focus on what needs to be accomplished, define it in technical and scientific terms, and look at it from a higher level and from different perspectives, discovery of innovative solutions becomes more efficient and effective.
Mark Evans is an expert in problem definition, adjacency mining, and leading open innovation programs for YourEncore clients. During the course of his 35 year career in Research & Development with P&G, his work leading open innovation programs for the Beauty Care division earned him the inaugural Connect + Develop Pioneer Award for Open Innovation. He has extensive experience practicing, leading and coaching Open and Front End Innovation programs with global companies across a broad range of industries, working with business leaders to make “build vs. collaborate” decisions, and leading the selection and development of partnering relationships. Mark has a BS in Chemical Engineering from Purdue and an MBA in Marketing from Xavier University.