What is the Problem Framing Canvas?

John Vetan

There has never been a more exciting time in business than now. Today, technology opens possibilities that were unthinkable a few years ago (as I write this piece, ChatGPT hit 1,000,000 users).

The new kids on the block, the tech companies,  seem to have already grabbed the lion’s share of the innovation pie. The large, established organizations honed their craft for decades, sometimes centuries, and now are trying to catch up and ride the innovation wave. And then there is everyone in between, feeling they are late to the party and can’t catch up anymore.

Yet, despite all the noise, there is little change. Organizations still do things as they used to, maybe adding a digital layer but without changing much fundamentally. Or they copy a few successful business models. Think of the 597 Ubers for that, 300 Airbnbs for this, 20 scooter services in every city and bike deliveries for every imaginable item.

To do something different, organizations need to make bold and informed decisions about what opportunities to pursue. Then stay behind those decisions and execute them.

Bold? Unfortunately, most stakeholders would rather get worse results (like the useless 100-page strategy deck written by consultants) than take risks and potentially look like fools.

Informed? Senior executives spend 80% of their time making decisions relying on incomplete data and being pressured by tight deadlines.

Even with the best innovation funnel or process, it is virtually impossible to get a breakthrough when there is a lack of clarity, direction and alignment. You could get lucky, but luck is not a reliable strategy.

Starting on the right foot

We don’t rely on luck. As innovation consultants, we help teams develop and test new value propositions and business models.  But any solution, any shiny prototype, is utterly useless if it’s not aligned with the business strategy and does not solve a real customer problem. We learned this the hard way.

Projects without stakeholders’ support would not get funding or be continued, even if customers loved the idea. Projects that started because an executive wanted to do something with  AI, or blockchain (today, we can add Metaverse, NFT, and Web3.0) failed to create a better customer experience than existing solutions.

The results: the teams get demotivated, innovation efforts lose the little traction they had (because it does not work, right?), and everyone is back to business as usual.

That’s why starting on the right foot is essential.

What is Problem Framing?

Over the past six years, Design Sprint Academy has worked with leadership teams and senior decision-makers in dire need of finding their next business opportunity or where to focus their innovation efforts. As a result, we developed and refined our solution: Problem Framing.

Problem Framing is a design thinking approach to align stakeholders and help them make informed decisions by looking at problems through multiple frames. It’s a recipe to validate, define and prioritize business and innovation opportunities.

We have consistently used it with great results regardless of the type of organization, industry, or challenge.

We launched  Problem Framing in 2018 by teaching it to Google, and ever since, more than 2,500 people across the globe have joined our training programs to learn how to focus on problems that matter.

The Problem Framing Canvas

Today, we distilled the years of work and successful projects into a simple, accessible canvas that can be used for repeated success when framing and reframing your next opportunity.

We use this tool to kick off, collect insights and data, and document outcomes and decisions throughout a problem-framing project.

The Problem Framing Canvas by Design Sprint Academy
The Problem Framing Canvas by DSA

Who is this for?

The Problem Framing Canvas is designed to be used by individuals dealing with complex business problems, challenging stakeholders, and high-stakes projects in enterprise environments. A list of roles includes (but is not limited to) the following:

  • Innovation managers
  • Digital Transformation leaders
  • New Value Propositions teams
  • Product Managers - when creating product roadmaps
  • Internal consultants and facilitators
  • Agile coaches and change agents

When to use the Problem Framing Canvas?

You should use this canvas in projects that require problem framing; in our experience, this happens in one of the following three situations:

1. When the business problem is not clear

It’s not uncommon for stakeholders to present their poor, half-baked ideas to the team and ask them to build them because that’s important to them. Worse, sometimes it’s not even a problem to be solved; instead, it comes in the form of a solution (e.g. let’s gamify our loyalty program). Starting a project this way will not change any time soon, and it is very little you can do about it. But how you take it forward from this point will make all the difference. With Problem Framing, you can help your stakeholders better articulate what they are trying to achieve, change their perspective and make them look at the root causes instead of symptoms.

2. When the team is stuck

Sometimes a team seems not to be able to make progress with a big project or initiative. Stakeholders have different opinions, discussions go in circles, and there are meetings after meetings, but no decisions are made. Six months later, the team is in the same place.  In this case, Problem Framing will bring clarity to the group, aligning them around which opportunities they want to pursue.

3. When looking for a new opportunity

Finally, there are greenfield projects. When the team’s mandate is to come up with the best next thing. But starting from scratch can be intimidating, and the team might not know where to start. Problem Framing will help them explore their landscape, evaluate the various opportunities, and decide where to focus.

How to use the Problem Framing Canvas?

At the start of the project, use the Problem Framing Canvas to understand the current state of the problem you face as you will look at it through multiple frames: business vs. customers, inward vs. outward, positive vs. negative, and past and present vs. future. As you do, you will collect existing data and information relevant to your challenge: previous initiatives and successes, lessons learned, user/ customer research insights, competition data, trends that might impact your project, etc.  This is the data that your stakeholders will need to make those informed decisions we discussed in the beginning.

In this initial phase, using the Problem Framing Canvas will help you understand what you know but also expose any blind spots you may have. This knowledge will either provide enough insight to articulate the opportunity better (i.e., write a clear Problem Statement) or will inform your next steps as you keep framing the problem. These next steps might be:  doing target research to fill in gaps, stakeholder mapping and interviews, building data visualizations/ maps of your challenge, or running a problem-framing workshop with your stakeholders.

As you progress and work with the relevant stakeholders to frame the problem, you will use the Problem Framing Canvas to record the decisions that have been made (i.e., in a Problem Framing Workshop), including the final Problem Statement(s) that your stakeholders agreed to.

After Problem Framing

The ideal scenario is that you manage to frame the problem with your stakeholders using the information and data available to you. Everyone is happy; stakeholders are aligned on what they are trying to do, and there is a clear focus on the customer.  Potential solutions will create value for both the business and the customer. In this case, use the Problem Framing Canvas to get the buy-in and support for validating or building those solutions (i.e. running experiments like design sprints to validate solutions, budget approval, resource allocation, etc.)

But another outcome of Problem Framing could be that problem you are tackling is not worth solving, and you have to pivot. This is still a great outcome, as it will keep you and your team focused on what matters and will save your organization a lot of time and money which otherwise would have been wasted.

Explore our Problem Framing Canvas Webinar for a hands-on demonstration of its application.