Problem Framing Story: find problems before solutions

Hi, my name is John, I’m a curious person, and I have a real problem: I have some ideas that have no practical value.

This hurts me because I spend a lot of time and effort thinking about cool ideas and solutions, and get frustrated when I realise they are just a fad.

Besides me, other creative and entrepreneurial people also suffers from it.

I have tried canvases, business cases, and elevator pitches. They all seem great, but it didn’t work because they aren’t helping me focus on relevant and impactful problems.

Everyday hundreds of products and services are created. People work hard to invent the ultimate solution that will become the next big thing. This is even more a reality on the digital space, since the production resources are available to almost everyone. We live a time where “Yo”-like apps are everywhere.

Of course it’s great to see the momentum and how people are eager to innovate. The problem though, is that we are forgetting something very important: since we rush into solutions, many time we are solving problems that are neither unreal or irrelevant.

Imagine yourself creating a new product: you can easily list a hundred cool features that will turn it into a “must have innovation”. I have been there myself — many times, actually! But ideas don’t survive the collision with reality.

The thing is that we should be really focusing on relevant, important problems to solve, and not on pseudo-cool solutions that add no value to mankind.

On the recent years, many tools and practices came up to help us organise our thoughts and create valuable solutions for segment-specific problems. Most of them actually try to call our attention to the problem to be solved. Think about the elevator pitch, the lean canvas, business model canvas, etc.

There is an issue with them, though: they fail to focus only on the problem, because they split the attention with the solution and the specifics of the operation.

Don’t get me wrong: I love these tools! They provide focus and structure for our usually chaotic and multilayered thoughts, and I encourage everyone to use them.

What I advocate, though, is that we take a step back, and dedicate more time and effort to deeply understand the existent problems — before getting everything else on context.

So, next time you start thinking about an idea, take control of your mind, and first focus on framing the problem.

It’s like going to an appointment with the doctor: before prescribing any medicine, and even before creating any hypothesis of possible diseases, there is a prior anamnesis, that will focus on the pain and symptoms.

Okay… this sounds interesting, but how can one do it?

I have been using a rather simple yet effective way to help me focusing on problems: it’s what I call Problem Framing Story. It helps you to start your innovation process with a relevant story.

On the beginning of this article, I actually used it to tell the story of John. Let’s analyse each part of the statement:

Hi, my name is __________ [the person who has a problem]
A real person brings reality to the speech, and makes easier to create empathy.

I’m a __________ [who she is? what does she do?]
Is she a single mother? Is he a high school student? Is she a CEO? Be as specific as you can. We are creating context, so it’s easier to put yourself into the other person’s shoes.We are also defining a market segment or group of people that will likely have the same problem.

and I have a real problem: __________ [the framed and validated problem]
This helps focus on the core problem you identified (remember: you’re not yet trying to solve it).The “real” word is fundamental: makes you remember you need to find an existing problem for that person you mentioned before. Don’t create problems that don’t exist. To get there, the 5 why’s can be a good tool to get you to the root causes.

This hurts me because __________. [what are the consequences of the problem?]
When you find the specific pain points, you make sure the problem is relevant. This will separate real problems from mere annoyances.

Besides me, __________ [who else suffers from it]
Here you can make a first assessment of the market, and also find some lateral segments that could benefit from a solution to the problem. Also, can discard those pseudo-opportunities that address an individual only.

I have tried __________ [alternative medicines and solutions]
Find current possible solutions to the problem (either specific solutions or creative adapted alternatives).

but it didn’t work because __________. [what failed on each alternative]
What are the gaps of these current solutions? Why they didn’t work? What could be improved?

To make it easier to understand the big picture, here goes a visual representation of these elements:

And how to use this model?

The idea is actually to give focus to the problem and some related dimensions. You could run a collaborative session to ideate upon the template, for example.

But the best and most recommended thing to do is to go out and talk to people. Remember: NIHITO. Getting out of the building will even help you to evolve the problem definition.

Our lives are a never ending stock of problems calling out to be solved - we waste time, get frustrated, spend extra resources on a daily basis. So go out and find the Johns, Jessicas, Mikes, Claires of the world. Understand their contexts, talk to them about their daily challenges, and what are they missing for having unsolved problems.

Ultimately, search for problems before solutions.

Special Thanks to @protolous for helping me shape this final version ☺

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