In my experience, one of the weakest points in innovation workflows is the formulation of a powerful challenge. Challenges are defined more specifically just before teams start to ideate solutions, and it is crucial to provide a framework so that you can bring the team together and align impact and approach.
We face many complex challenges daily, however, there is a difference between the ones that we already know how to solve (technical challenges) and the ones we don’t know how to solve yet (adaptive challenges) as explained in the great book Moments of Impact, which I loved to read at the moment of my struggle with challenge management:
“Adaptive challenges are messy, open-ended, and ill-defined. In many cases, it’s hard to say what the right question is — let alone the answer. Many of the most important strategic challenges that organizations wrestle with today are adaptive challenges. It’s nearly impossible for anyone senior executive — or small leadership team — to solve adaptive challenges alone. They require observations and insights from a wide range of people who see the world and your organizations differently. And they require combining these divergent perspectives in a way that creates new ideas and possibilities that no individual would think on his or her own.” (Ertel and Solomon, 2014).
Whether it was for strategic work or for the design of a new product or service, I needed a tool to frame challenges so that teams could compile, align, discuss, and synthesize actionable knowledge before starting to ideate solutions for certain messy problems or situations.
It ended up being a design canvas.
Why a canvas is a great tool for collaborative thinking?
Strategic designers, and also design-minded professionals, like to use a design canvas to compile knowledge on one page. The reasons are at least the following:
- One page is space reduction: It forces you to write better, keeping just the relevant information and using the language that is easy to understand.
- One page is time-saving: It helps readers to consume the important information quicker and with enhanced focus.
- One page is a whole of its parts: Design canvases are composed of blocks or pieces and presented deliberately in a certain layout that makes relationships and associations emerge.
- One page is scalable: You can print it in big format and work with your team in the studio or in a workshop style meeting.
A perfect example of a popular canvas is The Business Model Canvas (by Alex Osterwalder), which is used to quickly and easily define and communicate a business idea or concept.
The Challenge Canvas
After several months of working on the topic of innovation challenges, and having studied other tools on the internet, I came up with these two ideas that should be tackled when dealing with challenges:
- Many times we go fast when we shouldn’t
The tool needed to compile the most relevant knowledge of the problem before diverging into ideation. It needed to facilitate decision-making. Even more, it had to be a tool that would force us to stop doing and question our process: Did we reach the proper understanding of what we have to solve?
- Context is essential for design work
The tool needed to convey an amplified focus on the design project context in order to not reinvent the wheel, have current opportunities in mind and help the team to move forward through a clarified narrative.
Following these ideas and working with my design-partner-in-crime Julia Kolm, we created and tested the following canvas which is composed of 10 main building blocks.
How to use it
The canvas is best when printed on an A3 sheet of paper (at least, or copied onto a bigger board of your choice). During the early stages of challenge definition, you can fold it in half (or just prepare the board with one half of it to be worked on) so that the team can focus on the development of their challenge in parts. Or present it as a blank canvas to your team and co-create its contents.
Find below a series of trigger questions that can work as prompts helping your team to progressively fill in the Challenge Canvas.
Knowledge of the problem
The first part relates to the knowledge of the problem and early ideas (highlighted in red below):
1 Point of View: Who holds the insights of the problem? (this is the Why). Who is the customer? (this is the Who). What do they need to resolve? (this is the What). Find an extended description of POV statements in the d.school wiki.
2 Impact: What is your achievable goal? Which metrics will show your progress?
3 Problems: Which are the unmet needs of your customers? How big is this market?
4 Solution ideas: Could any of your current solutions be of use? What are your first ideas for new solutions? (Remember: No jumping to conclusions at this point!)
5 To Explore: What does your team need to learn in order to move forward? Who to talk to?
6 Key Players: Who are the key stakeholders that need to be involved?
Context and explanation
The second part is related to the context and explanation of the challenge:
7 Barriers: What is working against you? How can it be overcome?
8 Amplifiers: What is working for you? What are the synergies?
9 How-Might-We question: this is the synthesis of your challenge. HMW + verb + object + context + restriction(s)
10 Narrative: What is the pitch for this challenge? Synthetize why the problem exists, why it is important to solve, who will benefit from it, why now, and the next steps.
Block 9: The How Might We question
We created block 9 on purpose for the How-Might-We question (HMW). It is really a great exercise of synthesis to have a compelling HMW question. They are very useful when you address an audience and to identify similarities and differences between different statements that may help to tackle your challenge. Also, it helps when you are working on a task and want to remember the main reason that brought you there.
Julia and I are fans of HMW questions and questions in general. HMW questions can be created in many ways; we suggest the following two that are complementary:
- Question-storming: It’s like brainstorming, but rather than coming up with ideas you ideate questions. Divergently, your team writes as many questions as possible and then they choose the most representative ones for the challenge (see Warren Berger’s amazing work on questions).
- HMW syntax: This is a more convergent process. Focus on the structure of the sentence, and the terms you need to articulate to provide meaning. HMW questions can be linked all the way back to ancient Greek philosophers, and to be practical we suggest the following syntax:
HMW + a verb + an object + the context + restriction(s).
An example HMW question could be this one:
How might we + increase + the generation and sharing of new ideas + among our distributed business units across the globe + in less than 6 months?
Restrictions of any kind, when identified properly, are useful and should be noted before designing. Identified boundaries help to create a certain sense of urgency in a particular situation. It’s not a mandatory part of the HMW question, but we think it helps to have it there.
In any case, HMW questions alone may lack a framework of information that delivers better understanding and focus. This is the reason why the Challenge Canvas includes the other blocks: it will help teams not just with the construction of the challenge itself, but also offer better guidance to collaborative thinking through a lens of innovation methodology.
Practice will take you there!
Whether it is using this canvas, other methods, or going wild with question-storming exercises, it is the practice (of strategic design) that will take the team to a better starting point before developing new solutions.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I think this is one of the weakest points of innovation workflows and strategic thinking when working on new projects, initiatives or products.
There might be a lot of risks you want to reduce as much as possible: the Challenge canvas could be an opportunity for your team to discuss together before move forward better aligned. And more importantly, due to the iterative nature of innovation and design, if your prototypes reveal that you need to go back and explore things again, you have this canvas as a reference to reflect on what was inconsistent and to track your next redefinition(s).
We hope it helps you!
Download the Challenge Canvas
The feedback for this canvas elaboration coming from André Quadros, Cristina San Agapito, Ignasi Salvador, and Marc Vela, is really appreciated.
Please suggest improvements to the canvas in the comments — we´d love to hear what you think!