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Two practical innovation techniques to help you find the right problem to solve

In this blog post, we will dive into our past Playing Lean Expert webinar with Sean Buckland in which he introduced two simple and effective ways to help you keep your eyes wide open to finding the right problem to solve: 9 Windows and Problem Explorer.

Sean’s thirty-year career includes extensive work in change as an organisational psychologist, and service business redesign as a Lean Six Sigma specialist. He set up his first business in 2007 and continues to love every minute of it. Having read the Lean Start Up some years back he decided to add innovation to his improvement portfolio, and has since supported a number of start-ups to transform their offerings and profitability.

Sean's consultancy company Design for Service has also backed both versions of our Playing Lean game on Kickstarter, because as he mentioned in the webinar, he loves supporting innovative ideas and products he wished he had done himself but doesn't have the time. He has also presented a case study on our blog on how Playing Lean helped launch an innovative business advice service for SMEs.

There are a couple of tools Sean has extensively used over the years in a whole variety of situations, not just innovation startup space, but general problem solving. Before we examine and talk about the two tools mentioned, we should look at the context where these tools come from.

Systematic Innovation

When working in the field of innovation and startup, we're constantly in a mindset of ‘’should I do it more widely'' or ‘’should I narrow it down''.

There is a simple concept that can explain this: there is a diverge phase and a converge phase. You are either in the space of creating choices, or you're in the space of making choices.


With creating choices, the more choices and ideas you can generate the better. When you're in the converge phase, you have to try to eliminate the poor ideas or the good ideas to find the very best.

This is a sequence you go through systematically as you are trying to get to the best solution. A visual representation of this would be the Double Diamond model.

We go through a divergent phase and ask ourselves: What are the different types of things that we can solve? What are the different problems we're looking to fix? From this we can define the right situation, and that allows us to start thinking in a divergent way of the possible solutions that we can come up with, and from those possible solutions we want to converge back down again into the best solutions.

One of the things he finds difficult about Lean Startup is that the literature doesn't manage these phases very well, so we can get stuck in a situation where we might be thinking convergently, when we're actually looking to diverge and vice versa. An example of this is trying to do rapid prototyping too early, when we haven't solved the right problem yet.

There are a lot of tools around Systematic Innovation. In the define stage, the 9 Windows and Problem Explorer tools are at the very beginning which is the best place to use them – at the beginning of your thinking. They can also be used if you're stuck, or if you find yourself needing to pivot. They are a divergent set of tools because we want to create as much as possible.

9 Windows is a structured method for helping you contextualize your focus in terms of both timespan and solution space.

Problem Explorer takes any start point and creates clarity of purpose and context so that you can scale up or down your ambitions to find the optimal problem to solve.


9 Windows

This tool can be used in a huge variety of circumstances and settings. You can either go through it in a few minutes, or spend ages working on it.

This tool tries to get us to think in terms of time which can lift us out of being trapped in our way of thinking. Usually when we have an idea and we know it's going to be a fantastic opportunity, and everyone is going to buy it, we just need to make it happen, we are usually stuck in the now. Using this tool will help us think about the context of now from the past, and what the now could be in the future. This can broaden our perspective and give us a divergent viewing point.

Then we have to look at the System. This is the context and all the things that work together: the inputs, outputs, environments, people factor, the culture, politics and anything relevant to the particular thing that we're looking at fixing. Attached to this is Around the System – systems that sit around or are on top of the system that we are a part of, and Within System is a much more detailed part of the System.

This can best be explained with an example:

We have a phone. The problem is the phone is not working the best you want it to – there might be features missing or a capability you want it to have.  The System you would be thinking of now is purely the system of the phone in your hand and how you interact with it.

If you go Around the system, you might start thinking of other people's phones and how they interact with it.

If you go Within the system, you're narrowing it down, so you start thinking about the components of the phone: the battery, screen etc.

To put in plainly, Around System expands outwards, and Within System is still expanding but it's expanding in terms of the amount of detail.

By doing this, you go from the problem of the phone not having some features, to Within System and thinking about the screen and what was the process of getting to touch screens, to what the screen could be in the future and then you start thinking of a totally different problem.

The 9 Windows allows you to shift your point of focus from where you started to where it could most usefully develop. You can also expand to 12 grids by migrating your new problem to the now, and eventually you'll get to the point where you've got something that you have genuinely thought through and you understand its wider context: the microsystem, macrosystem ad you understand the potential futures from which you can choose the ones you want to influence with your new business idea.

You can use this tool in a whole range of contexts. You can use it as an initial exploration that will provide you with a structured learning curve. For example, if you have an idea in an area you know nothing about, by using this tool you can make sure you've got a clear understanding of the area you're putting yourself into.

It's also a powerful way of thinking creatively about resources which is most useful for established companies, since unlike startups, they have resources. They can think about the resources they have available to them now, what resources are available to them outside of their immediate environment that they could access potentially, and how they can use resources in a newer novel way.

By the time you do the 9 Window method, you will have a strong understanding of the nature of the problem you're trying to go after, and it usually, not always, gives you insight into what's the better problem to solve, or you might end up focusing on a totally different type of problem.

A quick quality check you can do yourself is if at the end of doing 9 Windows you are still thinking of doing the exact same thing you were going to do before doing the 9 Windows, then you're probably treating this method as an exercise and you're not giving it the right attention.

Problem explorer

Now that you have a better definition of the problem you want to solve, you want to explore it.

You can look at this method as a ladder, and it can be as long as you want it to be.

In the middle, we again have our Original problem, and two coaching questions to use.

1)  Why do I want to solve this problem?  Why else?

This will give us insight into something that is a broader problem, which has a lot of similarities with 9 Windows.


The Original problem I want to solve is to improve managers' understanding of agile methodology.

Then you ask yourself why do I want to solve this? The reason could be because managers' approach to digital transformation is still sometimes limited to the Waterfall methodology, or they're not understanding how to involve the customers properly.

This can lead to a bigger problem and you go further up the ladder, and sometimes that might be the better problem to solve first. Usually one or two layers is enough to get you to the right point.

The crucial thing here is that you're still adding, still diverging, but with a much more focused diverge. We want to make sure we're solving specifically the correct thing.

You can also go the other way, down the ladder and ask yourself:

2)  What's stopping me solving this problem? What else?

Here you are asking yourself what's stopping you from already understanding it. You can list a series of barriers, constraints, risks, behaviours etc. These are very precise things.

Then you pick from that list, and have a much narrow problem to focus on.

Putting this into the context of our example: maybe everybody's heard of agile, but people are still naturally wanting to carry on with the Waterfall methodology. In other words, they want to have a business case up front, lots of documentation, a fixed priced contract with an IT consulting firm so that they know what they're letting themselves in for.

Then you ask yourself what's stopping them. It's not the concept of agile. Maybe what's stopping you from solving this problem is that people still have a very narrow definition of how to manage risk in setting up a project. Therefore, maybe you can solve a much smaller problem, that by itself or combined with one or two similar smaller problems will unblock the original problem.

This tool is very powerful because it stops us from trying to solve problems that are either bigger than we need to, or too many small problems.

When you've gone up or down the ladder, you'll intuitively know which is better: is it better to narrow it down, or is it better to broaden out.

Doing these two tools together will get you to where you need to be. The 9 Windows will get you to the point where you intuitively feel like you're going after the best opportunity, and the Problem Explorer gives it that one last ratchet tighter to where you've got one very specific problem with a specific reason to solve.

In the webinar, Sean went into more detail and many examples for these two methods, and also answered many interesting questions from attendees, so if you're interested in learning more about these methods, sign up to our newsletter to get a recording of this webinar, and all our past and future Playing Lean Expert webinar invitations and recordings.

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