Section 2. Framing problems to help solve them

Section 2. Framing problems to help solve them Problems and solutions > Framing problems to help solve them

2. Framing problems to help solve them

One way to creatively describe a challenge is to compare it to another kind of challenge that's been solved. Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit (makers of Quicken and QuickBooks software), felt that the problem to solve wasn't making good accounting software, but something else entirely: "The greatest competitor… was not in the industry. It was the pencil. The pencil is a tough and resilient substitute. Yet the entire industry had overlooked it." [§] He creatively framed the problem and shifted the perspective of his team to find a better solution than pencil and paper. Even if his competition had more talented problem solvers, engineers, or designers, his creative framing of the problem gave him an advantage. Anyone can use Cook's basic framing strategy; by choosing a powerful reference (the pencil), and framing the challenge around it (sell software), he created opportunities before he wrote a line of code.

[§] From Harvard Business Review on Innovation (Harvard Business School Press, 2001).

This pattern is everywhere in the history of innovation, but it's often hidden behind tales of brilliance and breakthrough solutions. As a test, follow the trail of any successful innovation far back enough, and odds are high that you'll find a creatively framed problem behind it. While Edison is heralded for the lightbulb, he was late to the party: dozens of other inventors were trying well before he began. His success came from defining the challenge differently. He thought of the lightbulb as a system, asking questions like, "How do you get power to homes to power the lightbulb? And where does that power come from?" A lightbulb alone was useless, and Edison knew why.

Cities had invested millions in gaslights, making any switch to a new technology incredibly expensive—even if there were perfect, cheap lightbulbs for sale. Ever the businessman, Edison was unwilling to make great lightbulbs that no one could buy. The real task to him wasn't "make a working lightbulb," as we're commonly taught. Instead, Edison framed the problem as "make an electricity system cities can use to adopt my lights." It's no surprise his philosophy of invention was based on 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. [||] With so much confidence in the problems he chose to undertake, he knew it was only a matter of time before he succeed. Edison avoided challenges like the philosopher's stone, or today's (lack of a) grand unified theory of physics, knowing that not enough pieces were in place yet for success to be possible.

[||] Tesla, a rival of Edison's—who many believe was a superior inventor—had this to say about Edison's approach to inventing, "If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of a bee to examine straw after straw until he found [it]. I was a sorry witness of such doings…a little theory would have saved him ninety percent of his labor." From The Engines of Our Ingenuity.

A similar story of well-framed problems comes from the rise of personal digital assistants (PDAs). For decades, people talked about handheld devices that could manage your calendar, contacts, and personal information. The 1980s and early 1990s saw HP, Siemens, Sharp, and Apple invest millions in new products, which all failed. It seemed that a successful PDA might be like Newton's philosopher's stone—an impossible task. That was until the Palm Pilot, introduced in 1996, successfully overcame the challenges that stumped their competitors; PDAs became a billion dollar industry, influencing the design of computers and mobile phones forever.

The key factor in Palm's success was that they defined their challenge differently than their competitors. Instead of focusing on engineering constraints, or lofty dreams of revolutionizing computers, they focused on what customers wanted. Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm, reasoned that his team knew as much about consumer feedback on previous PDAs as their competitors. Why not start the conversation with what people clearly needed, rather than what the companies of the day could provide?

Hawkin's spent an evening at home with a notepad, and soon had the following list of goals for the Pilot project: [#]

[#] Andrea Butter and David Pogue, Piloting Palm: The Inside Story of Palm, Handspring, and the Birth of the Billion-Dollar Handheld Industry (Wiley, 2002), 73.

  • Fits in a shirt pocket

  • Syncs seamlessly with PC

  • Fast and easy to use

  • No more than $299

In 1994, all of these goals were beyond ambitious—they were impossible. If you had shown them to any of the PDA companies of the day, you'd have been told to go home. But Hawkins realized solving these problems was the only real path to success. Handwriting recognition, color displays, or fancy keyboards, were all nice ideas, but they weren't essential. If they could succeed at these four challenges, Hawkins was convinced they had high odds of success.

Look carefully at those four bulleted items: there is great power packed into every one. Notice that the goal wasn't to be small, or handy, but specifically small enough to fit in a shirt pocket. It's an insightful criterion because shirt pockets are a time-tested size for various objects (lighters, cigarette packs, business cards, and most relevant to Palm, calculators), and by framing the challenges in this way, they focused their problem-solving efforts in ways that would pay off. When Hawkins made the list, he didn't know how he'd satisfy those conditions, but the act of spending time framing them was time well spent.

Other famously innovative projects were based on similar definitions. The book Blockbusters, by Gary S. Lynn, [**] examines many of them and how they came about (see Table 9-1). What's most interesting is how simple these objectives seem; because of their clear identification of the problem to solve, they're more powerful than complex ones. It's hard to forget these simple descriptions, so they make for useful tests of ideas as they're being developed.

[**] Gary S. Lynn, Blockbusters (Collins, 2003).

Table 9-1. Famous projects and their goals (from Lynn, except BackPack)
Apple IIe Reduce costs

Simplify manufacturing


Look like the Apple II

Original IBM PC Beat Apple

Do it in one year

Palm Pilot Fits in shirt pocket

Sync with PC

Fast and easy to use

Not more than $299

37signals Backpack [1] Life's loose ends

Basecamp is overkill

Pages with simple tools

Remind me away from the computer

[1] Backpack is an innovative web-based organizing tool. Backpack's list was used by permission from its creators at (

The Palm Pilot's success came largely from its simplicity as a product—a quality driven entirely by the self-defined constraints. In Piloting Palm, by Andrea Butter and David Pogue, a book on the history of the Pilot's development, these criteria enabled decision makers to keep the product so easy to use.

Hawkins, who presided over these meetings, was unyielding when it came to keeping what he saw as nonessential features out of the product. If the new machine were to fail it wouldn't be because it had been junked up with unnecessary functions, like its predecessors…. Soon the team became experts at killing features. [Section 2. Framing problems to help solve themSection 2. Framing problems to help solve them]

[Section 2. Framing problems to help solve themSection 2. Framing problems to help solve them] From Piloting Palm, 81.

The team's ability to focus on the core constraints—elements necessary for successful innovation—is what made the greatness of the Pilot possible.

Framing the problem by picking strong goals is nothing new: consider the Ten Commandments, the U.S. Bill of Rights, or even the rules for good games. Michael Jordan would never have dunked if James Nesmith had set the height of basketball hoops at 25 feet instead of 10. Hank Aaron wouldn't have hit 755 home runs if the inventors of baseball had decided that a ball hit over the fence was, perhaps most logically, out of bounds. Just like the creative talent of your smartest designer, programmer, or business analyst, picking the right problems to solve and defining them carefully creates a playing field for their talents. It's deceptively hard to create good constraints, and there's less glory in problem finding than solving; however, the number of successful innovations based on clever constraints proves it's worth the time.

2.1. Exploring problems with prototypes

If tomorrow at work you found the smartest person in your company sitting at her desk, typing away at a computer, monitor, and mouse all made from wood—without any electronics or working parts of any kind—what would you think? As for the Pilot's development, the true story is that Hawkins designed a wooden model. Early on, after framing the challenge with tough goals, he went to the small shop in his garage and spent hours carving and sawing. Although this wasn't easy, some decisions were straightforward because of the constraints: there were only a handful of ways to design a device to match the criteria. For example, to fit in a shirt pocket, the device could only carry AAA batteries—no other power source known to man could work in that form factor. So, his model assumed AAA. Similar thinking forced decisions about screen size, leading to the choice to go without a keyboard (and Hawkins whittled down a chopstick for use as a makeshift stylus). In a matter of hours, he had a prototype for the Pilot that he brought to work with him the next day.

He carried it around with him to all his meetings, pretending to use it as if it were the finished product. He'd "write" on it, carefully taking it out of his pocket and putting it away, to the dismay of the engineers and marketers on his team. They must have wondered why, for a cutting-edge technology project, their leader would carry around a roughly carved, nonelectronic replica of something that hadn't even been designed yet.

The value to Hawkins was obvious: how else could he explore? He wasn't certain that the problem of "design to fit in a shirt pocket" was the right form factor. It was possible that its shape should be like a banana or perhaps a Rubik's Cube. Or maybe there was another criterion, one they hadn't even imagined, that could only be discovered using the model. To Hawkins, there was no other way. In his words, "An essential part of innovation is to envision the new product or service. You have to use it and experience it before it is designed and built." When dealing with complex problems and many unknowns, innovation happens only when smart ways are found to clarify the challenges.

Anyone who has studied any creative field—painting, engineering, music, writing, and even filmmaking—knows there's nothing new here. Picasso spent hours with preliminary sketches before painting his masterpiece Les Demoiselles (he said, "To model an object is to possess it"). The Wright brothers built the first wind tunnel in America just so they could learn more about the airplane prototypes they made. In innovation, there is no alternative; the problems are too large to be attacked in any conventional way.