How Might We…?

Have you attended one of those sessions where you’re asked to be creative or come up with innovative ideas on the spot? In this era of corporate innovation, How Might We (HMW) statements have become a favoured technique among corporate leaders to inject a dose of innovation into their daily work. Unfortunately (despite their genuine intentions), their HMW statements often end up sounding something like this…

How Might We <insert this year’s KPI here> by <insert deadline here>?

or like this…

How Might We <insert very ambitious well-intended audacious goal> by <very optimistic but overly broad and vague approach>?

This is a pity, because the objective of a HMW is to frame problems as opportunity statements in order to brainstorm solutions. Well-crafted HMWs actually have the potential to reframe problems, provide inspiration and instigate collaboration.

This then raises the question of what makes a good How Might We?

Here is my take on what makes a good HMW.

1. Cloud over clock problems

In his essay “Of Clouds and Clocks”, Karl Popper observes that there are two different types of problems in this world:

My clouds are intended to represent physical systems which, like gases, are highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable. I shall assume that we have before us a schema or arrangement in which a very disturbed or disorderly cloud is placed on the left. On the other extreme of our arrangement, on its right, we may place a very reliable pendulum clock, a precision clock, intended to represent physical systems which are regular, orderly, and highly predictable in their behaviour.
According to what I may call the commonsense view of things, some natural phenomena, such as the weather, or the coming and going of clouds, are hard to predict: we speak of the `vagaries of the weather’. On the other hand, we speak of `clockwork precision’ if we wish to describe a highly regular and predictable phenomenon.

In essence, cloud problems are more grey, unpredictable and dynamic than clock problems. Think of climate change (cloud problem) vs. a car engine breakdown (clock problem). Cloud problems are the problems you want to solve with a HMW.

2. The right scope

An oft quoted guideline for choosing the right problem is to find something that is not too broad or narrow (to quote IDEO’s Tim Brown in The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use.)

Brown says it doesn’t work as well with problems that are too broad (“How might we solve world hunger?”) or too narrow (“How might we increase profits by 5 percent next quarter?”). Figuring out the right HMW questions to ask is a process, Brown says: “You need to find the sweet spot.”

The rationale behind the “not too broad or narrow” advice is that we want a statement that imposes constraints so we can focus on the problem, yet leaves enough room for creativity.

3. Starts with an insight

Think deeply about the problem, interview the people involved in the problem to find out more, consider the context of the problem - the incentives, structure and system surrounding it. Chances are you would have formed some insights about the problem. Try rephrasing these insights into a question and adding a HMW at the beginning.

4. Human and system centred

It’s easy to fall into the trap of coming up with a statement that is organisation focused. For instance, compare these two statements:

How might we improve staff engagement scores by 15% before next year’s employee survey?
How might we create healthy communities within and beyond the workplace?

Notice the difference in focus here. Instead of a statement that sounds slightly intimidating, a good HMW digs deeper into the problem to confront its human and environmental elements.

5. Positive and inspirational

Finally, a good HMW aims to inspire and energise. Here are another two examples:

How might we improve the economy of cities and regions facing economic decline?
How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline?

Notice the shift from slightly depressing to slightly hopeful. Also, the reframing from solely focusing on economic ways of improvement to “vibrancy” opens up the universe of solutions and hints at meeting a deeper human need.

I hope this article helps you come up with more inspiring, empathetic and collaborative challenges in your organisation. This is my attempt at articulating the crafting of HMWs — arguably more of an art than a science. Please comment/criticise/question!

For those looking for more examples, Open IDEO has many examples of good HMWs (thats where I found the examples above).