Creative Problem-Solving Starts with Better Defining the Problem

Creative Problem-Solving Starts with Better Defining the Problem

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” Einstein implication is that scientific advances come not so much from thinking up new solutions as from formulating problems in new ways or seeing them from different angles.

When it comes to finding innovative solutions, correctly defining the customer’s problem is the necessary first step. Comprehensive problem definition involves investigating and considering a vast number of possible new directions to explore. Approaching the perceived problem by reframing it into challenge statements will provide new possibilities. To do so, it’s helpful to employ the phrase, “How might I?” to generate a list of suggestions.

For example, imagine you’re helping your teenage son think his way through a problem without jumping into possible solutions for him. If your son perceives his challenge as “How might I get tickets to the concert?” you ask him, “Why do you want to get tickets to the concert?” (What’s the intent?) He then answers, “I want a date with Sue.” You then help him turn that answer into a broader challenge – “How might I get a date with Sue?” – to which there are now many more possible solutions to his problem.

Another example of how accurate problem definition enables better solutions comes from Min who, early in his career at Proctor & Gamble, was asked for help by a product development team that was formed in response to a competitor’s new product. Colgate’s green-striped Irish Spring was the first striped soap bar introduced to North America. With its aggressive advertising campaign emphasizing “refreshment,” the soap brand was finding ready consumer acceptance.

One of the rules at Procter & Gamble was that if it were the second entrant into a new market, a new product’s competitive advantage had to be demonstrated prior to market testing. When Min asked the team what was going wrong, they said they’d been unable to produce a green-striped bar that was preferred over Irish Spring in a consumer preference blind test. The team had experimented with several green-striped bars, all of which merely equaled Irish Spring in blind testing. It became evident to Min that the team had chosen to define its problem as, “How might we make a green-striped bar that consumers will prefer over Irish Spring?”

In applying the creative problem-solving process to the problem, Min began by developing alternative ways to frame the challenge. By repeatedly asking “Why might we want to make a green-striped bar that consumers would prefer over Irish Spring?” the group generated many alternative “How might we?” challenges.

The flash of inspiration came when a team member answered: “We want to make people feel more refreshed.” This led to the new challenge: “How might we better connote refreshment in a soap bar?” This less restrictive challenge, which included no mention of green stripes, gave them more room for creative solutions.

About 200 solution ideas were quickly generated for refreshment ideas. On evaluation, two ideas stood out. One was an image of sitting on a white sandy beach with blue sky, white clouds, and enjoying soothing, cooling breezes. The other was based on travel to the sea coast for refreshment. The eventual product result was a blue and white swirly bar with a unique scent and shape, which quickly won a blind test over Irish Spring, then soon achieved market success under the brand name Coast.

Solving this problem once it had been properly defined took the team mere hours. By leaping prematurely into solutions, the team had wasted almost six months before coming up with that problem definition.

Too often in the innovation process, people jump directly from problems to possible solutions. Successful problem-solving, however, requires them to begin the process with the recognition that they have a fuzzy situation and need to gather facts in order to better define the problem. Only after the “How might we?” line of inquiry is undertaken in a thorough fashion to allow for better insight should they move on to exploring, evaluating, and selecting solution ideas.

The authors’ new book, “Design-Centered Entrepreneurship,” provides a research-driven, step-by-step approach to creative problem solving. Learn more at


  • Min Basadur

    Min Basadur is Professor Emeritus of Innovation at McMaster University, Canada, and founder of Basadur Applied Creativity.

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  • Michael Goldsby

    Michael Goldsby is Stoops Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship and Chief Entrepreneurship Officer at Ball State University.

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  • Rob Mathews

    Rob Mathews is Executive Director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute at Ball University.

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