Understanding problems is a key to better innovations

Discovering, defining and sharing problems worth solving

Nicolas Poirier
3 min readApr 28, 2020
Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash

You should spend time, money and energy on solving problems with the greatest expected impacts. This applies to the development of new businesses, products or processes, at all levels of your organization. You need to discover a problem worth solving, define it and share it so that all stakeholders are aligned. Only when the problem is truly understood, you can start looking for solutions to solve it. Note that the risk of focusing on a solution first is to fall in love with it and make the problem fit the solution, which usually leads to poor innovation.


Discovering a problem worth solving is research work. You have to understand people and look at their needs and problems to find out one that is important to them. Most of the time, you shouldn’t ask them directly what they need. They won’t know and will generally think of solutions rather than problems.


Thanks to insights gathered from the discovery phase, you can clearly define a problem worth solving.

The challenge is to make your problem definition broad enough to open up for creativity, but narrow enough to generate specific solutions.

Asking “Why?” broadens the problem while asking “How?” narrows it.

Describe the needs

Who needs what because why.

  • Who is experiencing the problem?
  • What is the problem?
  • Why is the problem worth solving? What is the expected outcome for the people and for the organization?

You may add more context with “Where and when is experiencing the problem?”.

Paris residents need to live longer in good health because they want a long and happy life.

That’s too broad. You can’t find a manageable solution. So how? By breathing cleaner air.

Paris residents need thermal vehicles to be banned because they want to breathe cleaner air.

That’s too narrow to start with. Banning thermal vehicles is already a specific solution. So why? To breathe cleaner air.

Paris residents need to breathe cleaner air because poor air quality causes many premature deaths and serious illnesses.

That’s better. The focus is on better air quality without providing a specific solution.

Ask for solutions

How might we solve the problem so that why?

How might we make the air cleaner for Paris residents so that premature deaths and serious illnesses due to poor air quality are reduced?

It may be too broad and you could narrow it according to your capabilities. For instance, if you are in charge of road traffic in Paris, you can focus on it as you know it’s a major source of air pollution:

How might we make the air cleaner for Paris residents by reducing the impact of road traffic so that premature deaths and serious illnesses due to poor air quality caused by road traffic are reduced?

Specify how validate the solution

To have a dispassionate discussion about solutions, you have to specify a way to validate that a solution solve the problem, with something measurable, based on facts. That comes from the “why”.

To validate the solution to the problem above, set a target for reducing the concentration of pollutants in the air.


Once the problem is well defined you can share it. That’s a big step towards a better solution.

To find better solutions

By sharing the problem widely, everyone from across your organization can understand it and be able to submit solutions. You never know where the best ideas will appear.

To get better implementations

Now that you have an idea to solve the problem, you have to implement it. It is important that people who bring the solution to life understand the problem it will solve. Knowing why they work, they are more engaged to deliver the best implementation to solve the problem as they feel that their work matters. Also, misunderstanding of the problem may lead to bad solution implementation. So, instead of just telling them what to do, tell them why it is important to do it.