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In the Problem Definition Learning Module, we are going to learn the art and science of problem definition - the first and most essential skill of the effective public entrepreneur. Specifically, we’re going to explore the process of articulating a specific and actionable problem and identifying the root causes of that problem by using data, research, and collaboration. At the end of this module, we hope that you will understand why problem definition matters, and be able to describe and apply a participatory process for defining problems.

Download the worksheets for this module here.


What is Problem Definition?

In this interview, Alph Bingham, the Founder and President of InnoCentive, discusses the importance of problem definition within the context of crowd-sourcing solutions for prize-backed challenges. Specifically, he explores some the challenges that innovators face when engaging in problem definition, the mistakes they often make, and what you can do to be successful at defining and articulating problems effectively.

SOURCE: The GovLab



Thumbnail of interview with Alph Bingham


Alph Bingham, Ph.D. is President, co-founder and Chairman of the Board of InnoCentive, Inc. He has been a strong advocate of open innovation and founded InnoCentive along with other ventures that create the advantages of open and networked organizational structures. Dr. Bingham currently serves on the Board of Directors of InnoCentive, Collaborative Drug Discovery, Inc. and the advisory boards of the Center for Collective Intelligence (MIT) and Elanco Animal Health. He has lectured extensively at both national and international events. Dr. Bingham received a B.S. in chemistry from Brigham Young University and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Stanford University.


Basic Field Guide to the Positive Deviance Approach.

Positive Deviance Collaborative

Sept. 2010

This field guide provides a brief overview about how to get started when implementing the Positive Deviance approach, “a problem solving, asset-based approach grounded in the fact that communities have assets or resources they haven’t tapped.” It contains basic definitions, guiding principles, steps, tips, suggestions of when to use the PD approach, and more, to help practitioners implement projects

Read the full article here.

Nine Steps to Effective Business Problem Solving.

Martin Zwilling

Business Insider

19 July 2011

A quick read with 9 simple but insightful tips to keep in mind when solving any problem. The “formula” is originally from the New York Times bestselling author Brian Tracy’s book, The Power of Self Discipline, and although it is technically intended for entrepreneurs, the principles apply to anyone trying to solve a problem from startups to government.

Read the full article here.

Section 3. Defining and Analyzing the Problem.

Community Tool Box

This is a short section of a chapter in a much longer online “book” titled “Analyzing Community Problems and Designing and Adapting Community Interventions.” This particular section teaches readers to “determine the nature of the problem, clarify the problem, decide to solve the problem, and analyze the problem” using the process that Community Tool Box outlines for you.

Read the full article here.

Are You Solving the Right Problems?

Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

Harvard Business Review

18 Jan. 2017

This article acknowledges that while many companies and organizations practice effective problem-solving methods, these are often futile as they lack the ability to accurately define the problem. The author highlights common fallacies, using examples to clarify his claims, and then offers seven practices to effectively reframe problems.

Read the full article here.

Big Innovations Question the Status Quo. How Do You Ask the Right Questions?

Warren Berger

Fast Company

9 July 2018

This is a thoughtful article that examines the value of “what if” questions and their place in problem definition. The author emphasizes the value of asking questions in general and how they are key to innovation, and then focuses on the importance of knowing how to question. A pensive but fun read, this article uses several examples to support the notion that the importance of questions should not be understated.

Read the full article here.


Principles of PDIA


YouTube, 31 May 2016

In this video, Professor Lant Pritchett of Harvard Kennedy School provides an overview of Problem-driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) core principles: problem-driven; authorizing positive deviation; iterating and adapting; and scaling practices through diffusion. He concisely explains each one of these principles and suggests how this leads to more successful problem-solving within organizations.

Watch the full video here.

Defining a Problem: Crash Course Kids #18.1


While it is rather simple (likely because it was designed for kids), this video is a fun and easy intro to problem definition from an engineering perspective. Using animation to illustrate her points, the host cheerfully and clearly explains the core components of a good problem definition.

Watch the full video here.

Selling Solutions vs. Solving Problems


This video comes from the Building State Capability (BSC) program at the Center for International Development (CID) at Harvard University, which researches new strategies and tactics to build the capability of public organizations to execute and implement. In this video, Professor Lant Pritchett illustrates the difference between problems and solutions using a brief example.

Watch the full video here.



Choose the correct answer.

In considering where the weight of effort should go in solving a problem in one hour Einstein said he would spend ___ minutes on defining the problem and ___ minutes finding the solution.

Correct! Einstein emphasized the importance of problem solving by saying he would use almost all of his one hour to define a problem.

Unfortunately, that’s not correct. Hint: He recommended that more time be spent on defining the problem.


Choose the best answer.

Good problem definition is mostly about:

Correct! Digging deeper to really understand all the dimensions of the problem is the basis for creating sound solutions.

Unfortunately, that’s not correct. Hint: Ask yourself - “what would Einstein do?”


Choose all that apply

Poorly defined problems can lead to:

Correct! There’s a risk all of these problems can arise

You're right but there's more to this answer. Please try again!

Unfortunately, that’s not correct. There’s more problems that can arise.
Option 3:Incorrect! When practicing human-centered design, we would first want to research and consider how people experience the problem before we develop a potential solution to test.


Choose the best answer.

Correct! By articulating root causes you are better able to address the problem at its source.

Sorry, that’s not correct. While some solutions might address multiple problems, articulating root causes is focused on better understanding the problem.

You're right but there's more to this answer. Please try again!


Choose the correct answer.

Aside from determining “who” you are seeking to help, the most powerful question in developing a good problem definition statement is:

Correct! As a guide you should ask “why” at least 5 times to realise a good problem definition statement.

Unfortunately, that’s not correct. There’s an even better question to keep you driving down to the source of the problem.

You're right but there's more to this answer. Please try again!


True or false

The only thing you have to focus on when defining a problem is the analysis of relevant data.

Correct! Data, research and collaboration can be combined to ensure you understand a problem as it’s experienced by people and to pool resources that can expand the scope of possible responses to it.

Sorry, that’s not correct. Data is vital but there’s more you should think about.

You're right but there's more to this answer. Please try again!


Choose the correct answer.

The end goal of the problem definition process is to arrive at a definition that is:

Correct! It;s all about getting clear about the problem you are trying to address and what action you can take with available resources.

Sorry, that’s not correct. Good problem definition can have these characteristics, and can lead you to solutions with these characteristics, but mostly it’s focused on a good description of what could be realistically done with resources you have.

You're right but there's more to this answer. Please try again!


Choose the correct answer.

In the “slow elevator problem” the failure to ______ the problem led to suggesting a mechanical solution of “great expense” that was subsequently found to be avoidable.

Correct! Thinking about the problem differently - sometimes inspired by talking to and observing the people who experience it - can help you find problem definitions that lead to innovative solutions

Unfortunately, that’s not correct. Hint: Maybe they just needed to think about the problem from another perspective.

You're right but there's more to this answer. Please try again!


Choose all that apply

In reviewing your list of problem definitions to arrive at the one you will pursue you should consider:

Correct! All of these are good things to think about and can help you eliminate problems you can’t respond to effectively and focus on the ones you can.

Sorry - there’s more that you should weigh up when thinking about which problem definition to settle on

You're right but there's more to this answer. Please try again!


Choose the correct answer.

One of the key challenges in problem definition is the “constant temptation” to articulate _____ rather than a particular problem.

Correct! As much as we try we all fall victim to this at times. Testing your problem definition with others can help you avoid this common pitfall.

Sorry, that’s not correct. This is a good temptation to have!

You're right but there's more to this answer. Please try again!