In the first post about how to undertake social innovation (“Start Here.“), I wrote about the importance of starting with a problem, as opposed to jumping right in with a solution. Why is this the case?
Many projects intended to help people have failed in spectacular ways. Click here to learn more about failed aid projects (there are many). These initiatives frequently fail because they rest on assumptions about the people they’re supposedly helping. Even if the project is carried out as intended, if the base assumptions are wrong, then the project can have major unintended consequences.
To avoid these kinds of blunders, it’s best to be conscientious about selecting the right problems to address. But with so many worthwhile problems to address in the world, how do you pick one?
While a great deal of the guidance out there will tell you what to do once you know the issue that you’ll be addressing, there’s not a whole lot out there that explains how to narrow down the field of options to a problem that’s really worth your time. This may seem like an obvious selection to some of you out there (“Just pick one!” you might say), but here’s a little known secret: the problem you focus on will ultimately determine your level of success.
A well-defined problem often contains its own solution within it and the innovators who are truly taking things to the next level are the ones who are identifying those well-defined problems. The following resources will help you to be one of those innovators.
The chart above can help you prioritize issue areas by those that have high social and financial impacts (you want to make a difference and be able to financially sustain your efforts) and that also play to your strengths. For example, if I’m interested in addressing climate change on some level, I should start brainstorming ways in which I can use my unique skills and strengths to make a difference. It would be harder for me to go back to school to become a scientist, but maybe I could help in a communications or policy role. Of course, if I really want to become a scientist, that’s allowed—you can always build upon your skills and strengths. Brainstorming in this way can be helpful for identifying issue areas that make sense to pursue further.
Asking the right questions can also help to lead to the right problems. Here are some questions that can help the process of problem selection:
- What specific problem are you interested in addressing?
- Why is the problem important to you?
- What stakeholders are affected by the problem or might be affected by its solution?
- Who are your intended beneficiaries?
- What has been done to address the problem already? Are there gaps?
- What would the ideal world be in the absence of the problem?
When you’re looking into problems, you’ll most likely want to better understand the root cause of the problem, as opposed to focusing on symptoms of the problem. To get to root causes of problems, Toyota famously created the “Five Why’s” technique in the chart below for their Six Sigma process improvement program. You can use as many why’s as you need to get to the source problem, so don’t feel limited to five.
Once you have an idea of the field you want to go into, then utilizing the design thinking process is a great next step. I’ll talk more about the design thinking process in the next innovation post, but, overall, it has five stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Within that first step of Empathize, you’ll embed yourself in the world of the problem to discover key insights from those who are affected by the problem. These stages will help you further refine the problem, ask the right questions, develop more ideas, and select the best solutions.