Start with a Problem, Not a Solution

Last year at a school I am familiar with it was announced, with great excitement and fanfare, that they would be expanding their outdoor education program to include kindergarten students.  To some this was exciting because every Friday kindergarten students would spend the day learning science in the woods surrounding the school.  As a lover of science and the outdoors, I must confess that this sounded wonderful to me.  Then I paused for a moment asked, what problem is this change solving? 

The school had an answer that included need to develop scientific reasoning skills (e.g. communication, critical thinking).  However, it was clear from the beginning that the reason the school was doing this is because it seemed interesting, different, and exciting.  The “problem” followed the solution in this case. 

Every time we pursue something new we are dedicating resources: human, financial, and other.  Our resources are not limitless, so we want to be thoughtful about how we allocate resources (and how we determine whether the way we use our resources was worth it).  So, prior to pursuing solutions and allocating resources (even small amounts of resources), I recommend that you deeply understand what problem you are trying to solve.  By focusing on the problem first, you create an opportunity to learn whether there is a real problem or whether you are focused on the correct problem.  When you focus on the solution first people get attached to implementing the solution and lose sight of the problem.  The measure of success is not about whether it solves a problem, but about whether people like it.  Once you have a solution it is hard to diverge from it. 

New ideas or program (such as the outdoor one I described above) are often introduced and defended as “innovative”.  Unfortunately, they are neither.  Innovation is new and adds value for our stakeholder.  If you have defined in advance what problem you are trying to add, then any assertion that the program adds value is post-hoc.   

Take the time to dig into your problem and deeply understand it.  Try using the Frame Your Challenge Worksheet to get started.