How to Keep People at the Heart of Your Next Problem Solving Process

Tom Barrett
Mar 17, 2016 · 4 min read

Problem solving is a skill we want all of our students to be honing whilst at school. However one of the issues I stumble upon during my work is the weaker focus on problem finding.

In many ways problem finding can be more accurately and more broadly defined as the time when we check that a problem is worth solving in the first place. This is something students don’t experience enough. All too often they are presented with a problem and get busy generating ideas, or as adults we assume that the problem is clear when it is not and start from a much weaker position.

I enjoyed this recent article from Emily Heyward that focused attention on ensuring a problem is worth solving in the first place. Instead of immediately jumping ahead there are significant gains to be had by staying in the problem for much longer.

Staying focused on the problem also prevents you from falling into the fatal trap of assuming the world is waiting with bated breath for your product to launch. When I used to work in advertising, we would joke that the “insight” in the creative brief was often something along the lines of, “I wish there were a crunchy cereal with raisins that was healthy and also delicious.” But people do not wish this. They might have a hard time finding a quick breakfast that doesn’t make them feel fat or sluggish. And maybe your crunchy raisin cereal is the perfect response to this issue. But they are not waking up in the morning wishing for raisiny, crunchy goodness. Similarly, people are not wishing for your idea to exist, because they don’t even know it’s an option. So when you sit down to clarify what problem you’re solving, a great initial test is to imagine someone’s inner monologue. Is the problem you’ve identified something that a real human might actually be thinking?

The last line emphasises the importance of empathy in any problem solving/finding process. We have to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes to fully appreciate what the need is. I suppose that is the difference between something we might want and something that is a true need.

So spend longer in the problem state. Encourage your students and colleagues to remain in that state, often characterised by asking questions, for as long as you can. Technology and habits cause us to jump out of this inquiry/problem finding state all too quickly. That in itself is a habit or mindset we need to wean our students off.

John Dewey talked about inquiry in a similar way, inquiry in my opinion being synonymous with any creative process, saying that we need to protract the state of uncertainty for much longer.

To be genuinely thoughtful, we must be willing to sustain and protract that state of doubt which is the stimulus to thorough inquiry.

That has always resonated strongly with me. Whether in a design agency as Heyward refers to or as a curriculum based inquiry, it is the deliberate and sustained period of doubt that most characterises an inquiry. When we experience this with an open mindset to learn and empathise with those involved we are more likely to identify a problem worth our time to try and fix.

Further into her piece Emily Heyward also refers to the 5 Whys technique which we commonly use with teams we are working with. I suspect you have probably come across this too. However I like the slight change in the wording of the question, not just “Why?” but “Why does that matter?”. I think this small change resets the question back into one of relevance to the human being at the heart of the issue. It will be a small change I make when I use the 5 Whys technique in the future.

By focusing on the problem you’re solving, you move beyond a functional description of what your product is, to an emotional solution that connects with people at their core. It also keeps us honest that what we’re doing really matters…

In the start-up and design world it is critical to remain focused on the people at the heart of new ideas, but this is just as relevant for the creative inquiry we help our students experience. In many ways the core experience of “school” should be about creating something that matters. I imagine a time when that becomes a new education standard.

Tom Barrett

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Helping people re-discover the curiosity they had when they were 6 years old; designing learning that uses that curiosity to change the world around us.