Staying in the Problem Space

Arguably the most difficult part of design thinking, refraining from jumping to solutions can be painful for the seasoned practitioner who is accustomed to relying on gut intuition or past experiences to quickly apply solutions to problems that are similar to what they may have seen before.

By taking the time to collect stories, develop empathy and map current state, you’re allowed to see the problem in a different way, re-framing as you collect more nuanced information which, in turn, leads to more effective solutions.

I find this to be the hardest part of working with clients or stakeholders who want answers quickly. There is an art form to managing a stakeholder through the painful ambiguity that comes with sitting in the problem space. A key way to do this is to avoid saying overtly: “you’re jumping to solutions too quickly, let’s just hang out here in the problem a little longer.”

The art comes from listening more about where the stakeholder wants to go, probing for more detail and, again, asking why. Design thinking is iterative and the interviewing never stops – when a stakeholder is quick to jump to solutions, use that as an opportunity to find out more. And move quickly on to solutioning and prototyping and back to the problem space again if the solutions are effective.

Design thinking can actually happen quickly, but the problem space can be agonizing no matter how long we simmer there. It can feel like a messy process that isn’t going anywhere, but there is indeed structure that will become clear. Let the process guide you and when you’re anxious, go ahead and start writing ideas down but never allow yourself to stop listening to the research and the stories.


Photo by Tara Evans on Unsplash


2 thoughts on “Staying in the Problem Space

  1. I am with you on the “artform” of leading people through the ambiguity that comes from staying (longer) in the problem space. And love that idea of using a stakeholder’s “solutioning” to gain more insight into the problem space, vs. just telling them to “stop solutioning!”

    Just thinking out loud here – but I wonder if that trick could also work for all of us. I might be sitting in a problem space and my mind may go to some solution idea. Might I be able to unpack that solution idea, in the same way as you note above? That could be a slippery slope, but I could imagine that – with discipline – you might be able to leverage those moments of “temporary solutioning” to learn more about you are framing the challenge.


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