Is your business solving problems with purpose?

 If you want to work on ideas that deliver meaningful impact, start by finding the right problem before you begin proposing solutions.

Let’s talk about what you’re working on, or what you’re thinking about working on.

Bill Moggridge once said, “Few people think about it or aware of it. But there is nothing made by human beings that does not involve a design decision somewhere.” 

If you’re not a designer, you may have never heard of Bill Moggridge, but I can guarantee you're intimately familiar with his work. Among his many accomplishments over an estimable forty-plus year career, Moggridge designed what’s considered to have been the first laptop. 

That first laptop, created for NASA, was only a dim precursor to the iconic simplicity of the MacBook Air I’m writing on now. It’s design nevertheless comprised countless decisions ranging from the aesthetic to the functional to the behavioral, each with a specific aim and outcome. Because at its core, design is really just about solving problems. 

Actually, wait, let me rephrase that.
Design is really about finding problems.


In Designing Your Life, authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write: “Often we approach our problems as if they were addition or subtraction problems.” We want to make more money, or lose weight. We’ll be happier if we quit this job and find a new one. More time to be creative, fewer admin tasks, etc.

You get the gist. We’ve got problems, why would we need (or want) to find more than what we’ve got? 

Well, we’re not looking for just any old problems.
We’re looking for the wicked problems. 

Problems that are hairy and tangled and confounding. Problems that resist solutions. No, not the problems of the universe, and especially not the problems that are really just hammers looking for nails. 

We’re looking for problems that give us wide berth for defining success, deciding what it could look and feel like for us today, tomorrow, and beyond. And to that end, we’re looking for problems for which there’s no single solution, but lots of potential directions to explore. Finally, especially, we’re looking for problems that mean something, that speak to our hearts and souls, imploring us to come closer, dig deeper, really get in there good.

These are the problems that invite thinking like a designer because thinking like a designer means thinking about purpose. And that means getting under the hood, tinkering with all the nuts, bolts, screws, and wires to figure out what does what, how does it work, why is it there, and what if I did this or used this other thing instead?

Why, What If and How:
Three little questions for one big problem

I want to apologize in advance because what I’m about to say might sound absurd or stupid or worst of all, condescending. But I’m willing to risk it because it has to be said: Problems are not the same as ideas. 

We’ve all got a whole slew of ideas swimming around in our heads, like minnows racing to feed at the surface. Our brains can feel frenzied and overwhelmed, which can–and certainly does for me–leave us stuck in place, spinning with agitation.

When you're in feeding frenzy mode, it’s a good idea to step back, all the way back to asking yourself how you came to these ideas in the first place. You need to get back to your core question, to figure out what problems underpin all the all potential solutions you’ve been thinking about. 

In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger points out a logical and universal set of steps that lead great problem-finders to innovative discoveries.
It’s head-slappingly obvious, really. 

Start by asking why. Ask repeatedly, ask relentlessly, like a child would. Then, giving yourself the permission to be obvious and ridiculous in equal measure, ask What If?  Finally, imagine the ways how you might go about tinkering and trying things out.

Understanding needs by asking why

The foundation of design practice is empathy- putting ourselves in other’s shoes, seeing the world through other’s eyes, shifting perspectives and considering multiple angles. Sometimes the best way to get out of our own heads’ is to get in someone else’s. 

Empathy can often be mistaken for sympathy: it is not feeling pity or sorrow about someone’s state of wellbeing. Instead, it’s taking the time to understand how people sense and respond to the world around them, tuning into to what they say, think, feel, and do.

A 2013 study shows that we’re actually hardwired for empathy: "people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real." 

Through observing, listening, and immersing ourselves in a context, we’re able to reveal deeper needs and root causes. Empathy brings light to the spaces in between. It gets us to the right question.

Envisioning opportunities by asking 'what if?'

‘Envisioning opportunities’ is not just a lame euphemism for brainstorming. 

It’s not as simple as coming up with a pile of solutions and then just picking the best ones.

To move past the obvious and towards a greater potential for innovation, we’ve got to provoke our current understanding of reality.

This is why instead of just throwing creative spaghetti at the wall, you should try using phrases like “How might I,” or “What are ways…” or “What If…” to challenge the assumptions at the core of your ideas, even if it feels messy or silly. You’ll be surprised at how a question-driven approach to ideation can lead to surprising insights. 

Figuring out how by testing assumptions

To avoid being too precious about our starting points, we have to embrace an experimental mindset. We have to make things in order to learn. Prototypes give us a way to ‘see the future’ so we can make better decisions in the present, answering questions or revealing possibilities we wouldn’t have spotted otherwise. 

As Thomas Edison might think of it, the goal is finding all of the ways that won’t work. Testing our assumptions helps up figure out what we do know so we can build on it, and figure out what we don’t so we can try something else. Most importantly, it gets ideas out of our heads and out into the world, to evaluate and consider before investing in any one approach.

So what's your problem?

If you’ve got 99 problems and can’t quite figure out which is the One, I’ve created a simple process to guide your towards defining your own design challenge. 

In my four-step workbook, you’ll answer the questions that will help you find and frame the problems that have been rattling around in your head, and then you’ll actually evaluate which ones are the right fit (for now!) with your curiosity and enthusiasm. In my next post, I'll share a project planning method for focusing in and getting organized. 

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