In the emerging world of ‘open innovation’ where companies are looking outside more than ever for new technologies and products, some companies have dedicated technology scouts, while others have folks doing this important work in addition to their actual jobs.
Problem statements…what they are and what they should be
No matter what the area of our life, we all tend to be very prescriptive when it comes to solutions. It’s easy and natural to list or assume what solutions we need for any given issue.
But instead of listing solutions, the way to really find the right solution is to get to the heart of the problem.
What does that mean?
It’s not easy to define a problem. It’s easy to say what we want and what we think we need but not so easy to define the problem. Companies need to get better and more specific at defining the problem so that they don’t get hung up on what they or someone on the team thinks the solution should be.
Here are my three Quick Tips on problem statements and real solutions:
1. Define problems, not solutions.
What is your problem? Don’t try to solve it, just explain it. Define the problem in terms of end consumer needs to be solved or processes to be improved, etc. It's important that your problem definition be written in a way that it doesn't incorporate your own assumptions and biases about potential solutions.
2. Define problems completely.
Companies and individuals often assume that a detailed problem statement is limiting. I'll often hear people say "we don't want to limit your creativity". I'd rather that you focus that creativity! A problem statement shouldn't be a one-sentence description. Rather it should be a one-page document that outlines the problem background, current solutions, considered solution paths (both prior and future) and as many examples as possible. By being more complete in the problem definition, it often opens up whole new solution paths that would have otherwise been missed. In one recent example I've dealt with, the initial problem statement for a leading consumer health company identified the need for 'monitoring/ reinforcement' technologies to help with compliance with their product usage. Only in probing more deeply for problem understanding, did we surface that this reinforcement could deal not only with actual product usage, but also positive reinforcement by feeding back other improvements in the consumers' health that could be attributed to this program.
3. Define problems broadly so that you open up non-traditional solutions.
While you want to be 'complete' and thorough, it is equally important to not be too narrow in your problem definitions. The '5 why's' often employed in six sigma are a good tool to use here to ensure you are addressing underlying problems and not just symptoms. Rather than say, "we are looking for new brushless motor technologies that allow for a more powerful and lightweight drill at an affordable cost", it's better to focus on "material, battery and motor solutions that allow for more powerful and lightweight drills at an affordable cost". And I'd go even further to include in that problem statement the underlying needs that drive your assumed goals for lightweight and more power.
Writing effective problem statements is a more important part of technology scouting than you might think. Companies that have been at this a while understand from experience that defining the problem well is half the battle!