Generating Ideas 1: What’s your problem?

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site.

I’ve done a number of interviews over the last year with Innovation Managers at big UK charities. If there is one thing they hammer home, it is “Be clear where you need innovation”. You could waste a lot of time generating ideas to solve the wrong problem if you do not invest time identifying it.

This post looks at how to be sure you know what your challenge is before you start generating ideas. It includes two practical techniques.

Your first step is to be sure you are pursuing the right challenge. You’ve probably heard the untrue story about NASA spending millions developing a biro that would work in space at zero gravity and the Russians coming along and with a pencil. Whilst it was not quite like that, this neatly illustrates how you could spend a lot of money developing solutions for the wrong problem: “How do I get a biro to work in space?” was not the problem, it was “How do I write in space?”

PRACTICAL TIP 1: How do you work out what your problem is?

Why? / How? (Sometimes called Ladder of Abstraction or Funnel of Focus)

Try framing your problem e.g. I need to raise £100,000. Then broaden it out by asking “Why?” repeatedly.

Example:
I need to raise £100,000.
Why? Because our community centre needs adapting for young people
Why? Because the it does not have any provision or space for young people
Why? Because no-one has thought about the needs of young people in this area Why? Because we do not engage with them in any meaningful way.

The problem may be reframed to “How do we better engage with young people?” You can see how you could have put in a lot of effort raising funds for something the target user may not want. The young people may come up with a much simpler and cheaper answer to their needs.

You can also go the other way by asking “How?” to narrow it down, if you start with too wide a problem. However it is usually the case that asking “Why?” is more helpful in framing the initial problem for which you can then start generating ideas – look out for future blogs on ideas generation techniques.

PRACTICAL TIP 2: How do you know the scope of the problem?

Accept / Reject (Sometimes called Rope of Scope)

One trick to get your team thinking in the right direction is to get each person to come up with one wildly impractical radical solution and one pedestrian one. The problem holder can then be presented with each suggestion and (placing it inside or outside the ‘Rope of Scope’) explain why they would or would not accept the ideas proffered. Recording reasons for accepting or rejecting an idea helps scope out the problem.

Example:
Problem: I need a fundraising event for young people that they will be able to partake in but at the same time it will raise their awareness of mental illness in teenagers.
Practical Suggestion: Have a wear black to school day. Black is the colour of depression.
In scope. Why? It is – easy, cheap, teenagers like black, raises awareness
Impractical suggestion: all schools in area to visit mental hospital and be patients for a day. Out of scope. Why?It is a complex, logistical nightmare; could breach privacy of patients; health and safety issues.

By doing this a few times you get a range of criteria by which ideas can be evaluated and it helps get people in the right frame of mind.

A word of caution, whilst this is a useful tool, it may be better to use it after many ideas have been generated as a means of honing them down. If the team feel too constrained they may not feel free to come up with wild ideas that could be developed.

Have a go with these and let me know if they work for you by adding your experiences to the Innovation online group discussion thread.

If anyone has a good example of a charity spending a lot of money solving the wrong problem I’d love to hear it.

Future blogs in the series will be in idea-generation techniques – watch this space!

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