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How to skillfully frame an effective creative challenge

“A problem well stated is a problem half solved,” said the prolific American inventor Charles Kettering. He’s right, not only when it comes to stating a problem. “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” noted Dr. Albert Einstein. In other words, problem and opportunity are but two sides of the same coin, and we can use a neutral expression to cover both aspects: challenge. Creative challenges are among the most important (and least appreciated) aspects of creativity and innovation. Today, allow me to share with you seven tips on working more effectively with creative challenges.

1. Clarify your challenge in the first stage of the creative process.

All creative process methods concern themselves in their first process stage with one thing: Clarifying upfront what challenge you face. Typically, your real challenge (= problem = opportunity) is not what you initially perceive it to be. In an X-IDEA  innovation project, we invest days and sometimes several weeks or even months to work hard in the first stage X-Xploration to figure out how to best frame the innovation case we’re working on as a potent creative challenge.

2. Express your initial challenge.

The first thing we ask innovation teams to do is to express their initial understanding of their project case as an action question that starts with the words “How to.” We call this sentence the Initial Challenge, and it sets a preliminary anchor for the project case and gives focus to the team’s work. 

For example, say you’re working in the ice cream division of a Multinational Food Company and have been assigned to join an innovation project focusing on ice cream products for school kids. You may express your initial challenge here: “How to develop novel ice cream products for 6-15-year-old school kids?”

3. Reword your initial challenge with challenge restatements.

One tool we would ask your team to work on while exploring your innovation project case in the second step of stage X-Xploration is called Challenge Restatement. Here, you’re invited to rephrase your Initial Challenge using different words. Words have power and energy, and reframing your challenge using other words can shift your perspective on what your challenge is all about.
For example, challenge restatements to our ice cream challenge could read as follows: “How to surprise school kids with novel ice cream products?” “How to wow school kids with our ice cream?” “How to make our ice cream become the product of parents’ choice?” “How to make kids love our ice cream?” “How to make kids go crazy for enjoying our ice cream?”

4. Map out your challenges.

Once you have compiled a list of challenge restatements, highlight those sentences that resonate with you and then position these challenges on a Challenge Map based on their relative degree of abstraction. 

For example, the challenge “How to create healthy fruit ice cream products for kids?” is quite specific and is located on a low level of abstraction on the continuum of your Challenge Map. In contrast, the challenge “How to provide kids with enticing snacks?” is quite global and would be positioned on a high level of abstraction. How about our initial challenge? We can place it on a medium level, just like the challenge: “How to create enticing promotional campaign concepts for our ice cream?” 

Note that the more specific your final challenge, the narrower your range of ideas, and vice versa: The more global your challenge, the more diverse your idea pool. So, it’s best to settle for a challenge positioned somewhere in the middle ground. 

5. Frame your final challenge.

At the end of the Xploration stage, we help your team frame your Final Challenge, which is the essential stage output your team has to produce. Your final challenge is a well-framed “How to”-question that encapsulates all your learnings gained during Xploration. In particular, it draws upon those true aha!-insights that you got while exploring your case. 

In our example, one core insight that your team got is that you need to narrow the age range of the kids you target. Moreover, thanks to the Challenge Restatement and Challenge Mapping exercises, you noticed that you want to merge your initial challenge with the one focusing on promotional concepts. Hence, you unite these two challenges by moving  one level of abstraction up and formulate your final challenge: “How to create innovative ice cream concepts for 6-12-year-old kids?” 

6. Beware of the challenge ill-framing trap.

Now that you have framed your final challenge check that it stays clear of typical process traps that inexperienced innovators fall prey to when formulating the sentence. 

What are some of the common mistakes? In your challenge sentence, don’t use too many positioning elements (adjectives that narrow the focus). Remember to “kiss” — keep it short and simple. Avoid the word “and” in your Final Challenge statements; it often indicates that you want to solve two challenges simultaneously, which is aiming for two targets with only one bullet. Make sure your Final Challenge sentence doesn’t contain solutions or evaluation criteria. Finally, and most importantly, check that you framed the Final Challenge as a “How to”-action question to allow for easy idea generation.

7. Recall your Final Challenge throughout the creative process.

Revisit your Final Challenge at the beginning of each subsequent creative process stage and before using a particular thinking tool.

For example, remind every team member at the beginning of the Ideation Stage and when introducing a new creativity technique such as Word Association Chain, Morphological Matrix, or Reversal that you still want them to create ideas for the challenge: “How to create innovative ice cream concepts for 6-12-year-old kids?”

While this seems obvious, it’s good practice to clarify this, again and again, to ensure that all members of the innovation case stay focused on the same challenge. 

Conclusion: A challenge well framed is a challenge half solved.

The better your final challenge is framed, the better your ideas will be. So take the time needed to arrive at one final How to-sentence that is well-framed to make your life in the subsequent stages of the creative process easy and enjoyable. Framing a good Final Challenge is both a science and art. And the more innovation projects you’ve worked on (or have facilitated), the better you get at it.

  • Would you like to learn more about our creative process method X-IDEA and the other thinking tools in our X-IDEA innovation toolbox? Then consider checking out our X-IDEA training courses.
  • Contact us to tell us more about your planned innovation project and training initiatives for this year so that we can share ideas on how we might support you with our innovation know-how.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022. This article is earmarked to be co-published in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.