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Tool KitQuick StartI have a problem to solve

I have a problem to solve

Have a challenge you need to solve, but aren’t sure where to start? Try these tools to generate ideas that will lead to fresh solutions.


People Mapping

To really be an effective problem-solver, you must understand the people at the center — and on the fringes — of your challenge or project.

Think about the following:

  • The main set of people you’re trying to impact
  • Your target customers
  • The people surrounding the challenge
  • The people with a deeper understanding of, or connection to, your subject

Three Steps to Start People Mapping

  1. Grab sticky notes and start by writing down the name of the main user and placing it in the center of the wall.
  2. Write down one person or group of people necessary to the challenge or project (one per sticky) and post them around the main user. Continue this step until you have identified all relevant people or groups.
  3. This map will become the basis for interviews and observations.

People Mapping

Ready to start People Mapping? Use this worksheet as a guide.

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Info Seeking

To solve a challenge, you’ll need to understand what you’re dealing with.

When you first discover your challenge, you’ll have lots of unknowns. But, sometimes, we’re so quick to jump into the project that we forget to ask very important questions, which will help us frame and understand the challenge at hand.

To ensure you’re covering all your bases, be sure that you have reviewed the following:

  • Context. Review the background of the project and why it’s important.
  • Constraints. Be sure to know your boundaries.
  • Success. You need to know how it will be measured and how you’ll know if it’s a win.
  • People. Be clear on who needs to be involved throughout the process.

Three Steps to Begin Info Seeking

  1. Get together with your project mates and talk through everything you know and don’t know about this challenge or project.
  2. Make a list of questions for your project sponsor. Consider what you don’t know and what you need to know more about. Check out some suggestions in the Info Seeking worksheet.
  3. Get your sponsor in a room and ask your questions. It’s a good idea to record the answers so you can refer to it throughout the project.

Info Seeking

Use this worksheet to guide your Info Seeking.

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Customer Shoes

Whoever said, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” was right on the mark.

One of the best ways to gather information about your challenge is to experience it for yourself. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and gather your own insight firsthand. It’s one of the best ways to gather meaningful insight into your challenge.

Example: If your challenge is improving the customer experience when buying vitamins at your local drug store, go be the customer. Shop around and see what it’s like: Is it easy to find what you’re looking for? Is the selection overwhelming? Or, is it so well organized that it’s easy to look through all the options and make a selection?

How to Step into Your Customer’s Shoes

  • Think about what it is you want to learn more about and what challenge you are trying to solve. Try to anticipate the kinds of questions a customer might have.
  • Think about how you can put yourself in that role. Consider the time of day you’ll get the best results, the time it will take under optimal conditions, and what types of challenges you may face.
  • Go out and do it! Make it a fact-finding adventure.
  • Record what you learned. Your observations will help you develop interview questions and inform your research.

Challenge Framing

Before you tackle a challenge, you’ll need to make sure it’s framed appropriately… not too broad, not too narrow.

Too broad, and your challenge is virtually impossible to solve. Too narrow, and you’re not leaving the team enough latitude to develop meaningful solutions.

Too Broad
An overly broad challenge would require many solutions to address the different aspects of the problem.

Too Narrow
A too-narrow challenge doesn’t allow enough of an impact to create measurable success.

An appropriate challenge offers an opportunity to solve the problem with a meaningful, results-oriented solution.

Challenge Framing Tips

We frame challenges starting with, “How might we?”

  • “How” implies there is a solution to the problem.
  • “Might” says we’re going to develop many solutions and one may work.
  • “We” implies it will be a collaborative effort.

Include a qualifier in your statement

Your “How might we” statement should be followed by a qualifier that explains what you’re trying to accomplish.

Examples of a qualifier are “in order to increase a new customer’s understanding of how to use the product” or “to increase homework completion by 10 percent.” This helps indicate what success will look like.

Your challenge statement should look something like this:

“How might we improve X to ____?” or “How might we achieve Y to ____?”

Challenge Framing

Now, it’s your turn. Use this Challenge Framing worksheet to develop your challenge statement.

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One of the best ways to understand people is to talk to them.

Conducting interviews is a key part of doing primary research and learning what people want and need. Interviewing also helps identify barriers and obstacles that provide an opportunity for improvement.

Three Steps to Ace Interviewing

  1. Think about what you want to learn and use that as a starting point to write a list of five to seven questions.
  2. Schedule 30-minute time slots with interviewees and go prepared with your questions.
  3. Let the interviewee know that you’ll be taking notes. You can also ask to record the interview if you think you’ll want to go back to refer to it later.

Top Tips for Interviewing

  • Make sure to think about everyone who has a relationship to your challenge. People Mapping will help you identify those you need to connect with.
  • Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a yes or no.
  • Use the phrase “tell me more” to get your interviewee to elaborate and provide additional information.
  • Stay on track! You may be enjoying your interview…especially if your interview subject is interesting and engaging. But, don’t forget the reason for the interview. Your goal is to learn as much as possible.
  • Ask the interviewee to tell you a story about the last time they were in a situation, used a product, followed a service, or did anything related to what you’re trying to learn.
  • Take very detailed notes of your conversation so you can refer back to them. If you only jot down the theme of your conversation, you may lose the substance of what your interviewee shared.
  • Consider going as a team of two to each interview — one person can speak and the other can take notes.
  • Write down your interviewees’ age, gender, and whatever else might be noteworthy about that person (Does the fact that your interviewee is a mom of two inform her opinion?). This will allow you to segment your insight and better develop solutions for different populations.


Ready to talk? Use this worksheet to guide your Interviewing.

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When it comes to problem-solving, what people do is just as important as what they say.

For example, people will sometimes forget steps when describing how they do something. Or, they may explain something one way, and do it a different way… without even noticing!

By observing people, you can see exactly how they engage with your challenge.

Example: If you’re designing a new shopping cart for a supermarket, a shopper may describe how they shop but forget to point out that they often carry a cup of coffee, which makes it hard to push the cart with one hand. If you observe the shopper, you’d notice that detail.

Three Steps for Observation

  1. Identify what activities you want to observe and where to do it. Natural environments are ideal because they allow you to see how people are really interacting.
  2. Let the users know you’ll be observing, if necessary. In settings like stores or malls, you can unobtrusively gather information by observing from afar. If you’re watching someone use a website or a similar close-up observation, you’ll want to set it up ahead of time.
  3. Take detailed notes about what you observe, so you can refer back to them in your Research Download.

Research Download

If your process includes interviews, observations, online research, and more, the next step is your Research Download.

It requires capturing what everyone learned and organizing it in a way that shows you what people feel is “good” and working well or “bad” and needs work. Here are the basics:

  • Copy your insights onto different-colored pieces of paper so it’s easy to differentiate between the good (positive insights) and the areas of opportunity (negative insights).
  • Source each insight so you can segment your feedback. Noting details like an interviewee’s sex, age, and other relevant information will provide context around their opinions and help you be better-informed when it’s time to come up with ideas.
  • Remember, your task is to find a solution that meets the differing needs of all your constituencies, which may mean developing a solution that addresses multiple perspectives.

Four Quick Steps for Research Download

  1. Before you begin, make sure you have plenty of red, green, blue, and yellow paper. Consider cutting 8 ½ x 11 pieces of paper in half.
  2. Pull together your notes from interviews, observations, and fact finding.
  3. Write down one concept or insight per piece of paper. Quotes are best! Also, remember to source each piece of insight: Who said it? What website did you find it on?
  4. Tape all of your papers on a big wall. Group each color together. This will make it easier to pull together key themes.

Positive insights go on green paper

“The service was so fast, it was amazing!” – Barb, 36, mom

Negative insights go on red paper

“I was so frustrated I couldn’t find anything, I almost left.” – Ken, 50

Facts go on yellow paper

Signage by the register to remind them about vitamins

Starter ideas go on blue paper

You should have a vitamin consultant walking the aisles

Key Themes

Once you’ve completed the research phase, it’s time to identify Key Themes.

Look closely at the insights you and your team gathered to identify key themes, concepts, ideas, or feelings that are repeated over and over.

Key themes are the platforms around which you will develop your solutions.

Example: If your challenge is to build customer loyalty and your research showed that people are loyal to brands with excellent customer service, then a key theme might be:

“Customers feel high-quality and consistent customer service is key.”

Identifying Key Themes

  • Have all team members post their insights on a wall.
  • Read through all insights.
  • Jot down sentiments that come up over and over. These are your themes. They will become the jumping off point for ideation. For example, if a common theme is that people are confused by the overwhelming selection of vitamins so they don’t choose anything, you will ideate around how to make the selection process easier. Aim to identify between three and five themes.

Related Worlds

When it’s time to tackle your challenge, it helps to have a stimulus to spark amazing ideas.

The Related Worlds exercise helps you look at ways other industries have solved similar problems, so you can apply those principles to your issue.

Example: A hospital rethinking their patient experience may want to look at the ways five-star hotels, luxury car dealerships, and country clubs treat their guests. While a hospital’s purpose is different from these other places, hospitals could learn a lot about a premier guest experience by looking at how car dealerships greet customers, how a luxury hotel moves people from check-in to their rooms, and how a country club makes members feel like they belong.

Three Steps for Coming Up with Related Worlds

  1. Think about the crux of your challenge. Is it about providing a superior customer experience? Is it about building loyalty among your users?
  2. Think about other industries that have nailed that challenge. Consider the similarities between your organizations and the differences.
  3. Make a list of ways other industries excelled in that area and how you can apply those principles to your solutions.


Assumption Busting

Leaning on assumptions can lead to predictable, stale ideas — that’s where Assumption Busting comes in.

One key to problem solving is reexamining standard assumptions to make sure we’re not leaning on old ideas just out of habit.

Often, we accept that something must be done a certain way because that’s how we’ve always known it to be (e.g., phones always have cables, doors need to have handles, cars must have a driver). By breaking away from those assumptions, we’re often able to come up with new ways of doing things.

Three Steps for Successful Assumption Busting

  1. List all of the things you believe to be true about your particular challenge down the left side of a piece of paper.
  2. On the right side of the paper, write down the opposite of those things… or jot down something completely different.
  3. When you start building ideas, use the items on the right side of your paper as inspiration. If they seem too crazy or unrealistic, think about how you might take the essence of those ideas and apply them more practically.

Assumption Busting

Ready to bust assumptions? Use this worksheet to guide you.

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Starter Ideas

Have each member of your team take a few minutes to come up with as many high-level ideas as they can to solve your challenge.

This exercise is especially helpful to give folks who are less comfortable speaking up in a group or who prefer to work independently an opportunity to share their ideas. After you have lots of Starter Ideas, group similar ones together. This way, you can identify common themes to explore in more detail.

Four Steps for Generating Starter Ideas

  1. Have everyone in your group jot down all of their ideas on sticky notes — one thought per sticky note.
  2. After all group members are finished, come back together and share what you’ve come up with.
  3. Post the sticky notes up on a wall and group similar or related ideas together (see below).
  4. Decide which ideas you want to build out further. You may want to incorporate two or three of these ideas together to come up with one big idea.

Forced Association

Forced Association is a fun and effective method for generating ideas.

When you brainstorm, you associate ideas that occur spontaneously. With Forced Association, you trigger and stimulate that process.

Think of a random word or idea (using current trends works well) and brainstorm how it relates to the crux of your challenge. Forcing an association between these two unrelated items forces you to escape your current paradigm and discover solutions from seemingly unrelated fields.

Three Steps to Master Forced Association

  1. Make a list of ten current trends (e.g., superheroes, augmented reality, automation).
  2. Connect each trend with your challenge. Generate as many ideas as you can without judging them.
  3. Narrow down the ideas to a few that might work. If you aim for ten ideas from each of the pairings, chances are you’ll generate at least five usable ideas.

Here’s an example: Imagine you’re trying to come up with an interesting new coffee shop concept. Forced Association involves jotting down trends that have nothing to do with the concept — like augmented reality, superhero culture, automation, and storytelling.

Put your unrelated trends into a hat and take turns pulling them out and connecting them to your concept. The outcome:

  • A comic-themed coffee shop with hero-costumed baristas and themed drinks of justice.
  • A self-serve coffee bar where your latte is made by a bot.
  • Beverages named and modeled around classic fairy tales and characters.

Idea Build Out

When you need to move from general to specific thinking, an Idea Build Out is your best bet.

During an Idea Build Out, you need to think out your idea in detail, getting very specific, and capturing it from multiple angles.

Three Steps for Excelling at the Idea Build Out

  1. Look at all the high-level ideas you captured during Starter Ideas, and identify which ones you’d like to explore further.
  2. Write a detailed description, draw a picture, and give your idea a descriptive and catchy title.
  3. Make sure your description covers the who, what, when, where, and why.

Top Tips for a Successful Idea Build Out

  • Move beyond a general thought and dig into the specifics:
    • What is this idea and what problem does it solve?
    • Who will benefit from the idea?
    • Where and when will it be used?
    • What might we need to make it happen?
  • Welcome and encourage all ideas.
  • Talk through your idea before you start recording the details.
  • Judge later. Be open to the silly and seemingly impossible.

Idea Build Out

Use this worksheet to guide your Idea Build Out.

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