Skip to content

Fall in love with the solution, not the problem

It’s often the case that development organisations begin their interventions in a given location by asking “what problem can we solve here?”. But imagine instead for a moment an organisation starting with these questions instead:

“What solutions, assets and local innovators exist in this community?”

“Who in your community has already solved the problem we wish to invest in?”

Its staff would be equipped and encouraged to approach communities not by asking “what do you need?” or, for example “how can we use mobile phones to help you?” but rather by observing what they already have and identifying positive deviants. This organisation would define its programmatic priorities only after having completed this process, framing interventions based on its intimate knowledge of the local dynamics and capabilities.

It would treat local innovators as its distributed “research and development” team (rather than, say, create a centralised innovation team in some distant location). It would build the skills of local partners to map and acknowledge their own assets. It would devote most of its financial resources to augmenting and amplifying local dynamics and existing initiatives.

Straight forward as this approach might seem, in our experience it describes somewhat of a development unicorn. A number of deeply ingrained factors, ranging from donor requirements to the cognitive bias of development experts, contribute to make it so. Perhaps one of the most entrenched patterns in the development industry is that an organisation should start by defining the problem it wants to solve. Whilst this might seem intuitive and reflects how most managers both in the nonprofit and for profit world are trained, in our experience such an approach can be limiting, particularly when it comes to wicked, intractable problems.

The problem with problem definition

Defining the problem - often overlooked but crucial for finding appropriate solutions to challenges. #UNHCRNGOs

— UNHCR Innovation (@UNHCRInnovation) June 17, 2016

A common mantra in the startup world is that you should fall in love with the problem, not the solution. Endless hackathons and challenges encourage participants to come up with a well refined “problem statement”. Scarred by its well documented history of solutionism and isomorphic mimicry, the development sector has gladly adopted the same mantra.

It is of course very difficult to argue against problem definition. Analytical thinking is what most development practitioners - and business managers - have been traditionally trained on. The underlying belief is that when once you thoroughly explore the problem space (often through a desk exercise), the solution presents itself. And, let’s face it, starting with “I might not know what the solution is to this particularly challenging societal issue” is not exactly a successful strategy when pitching for donor funding.

So what is the issue with the problem definition default? In our experience, there are at least three:

  1. When tackling complex, wicked issues, an accurate problem articulation is by definition impossible.
  2. The problem definition default setting means that, whether explicitly or implicitly, development workers develop a bias towards externally, expert driven solutions (what has been effectively dubbed the reductive seduction of solving other people’s problems.
  3. Perhaps more importantly, the emphasis on problem definition prevents development workers from exploring two other, and in our mind, equally legitimate strategies for problem solving, namely: co-evolution and solution mapping.

3 possible strategies for problem solving

Created by: Bas Leurs

Thanks to the increasing popularity of design thinking, ethnography and rapid prototyping in the development sector, the co-evolution approach - where problem definitions emerge through materialising potential solutions - has recently gained more and more traction (though, sadly, in our practice we have encountered still many projects that were entirely designed without a single field visit).

This approach posits that the problem and solution space are intertwined and that it is by exploring possible solutions that we unpack the problem. Approaches informed by similar beliefs like problem-driven iterative adaptation have also found fervent advocates in the development sector but are still far from mainstream.

The solutions mapping approach, however, is still somewhat of an outlier perhaps because it is somewhat counterintuitive and, frankly, not often a “sexy” sell for donors.

Solving problems without defining them

"On a mild day in 1948, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral went hiking in the Alps with his dog. When they returned revived by the mountain air, he saw that the dog's fur had picked up a number of burrs from plants on the side of the path. As he bent down to pick them off, something stirred in his brain, and he kept the burrs in his pocket to examine under a microscope. Later, he discovered a way of mimicking the hooks and loops of the burrs in synthetic material. Velcro was born and soon became a household name."

- Lucy Jones in the Long and Short

Is it really possible to solve a problem without defining it? In their paper Identifying Viable ‘Need-Solution Pairs’: Problem Solving Without Problem Formulation, MIT Professors Eric Von Hippel and Georg von Grogh demonstrate that, far from being uncommon, this is actually quite a common occurrence. The rolling suitcase, for instance, was invented when Bernard Sadow, struggling to carry his heavy luggage, observed an airport worker effortlessly rolling a heavy machine on a wheeled skid. In cases like this, the problem is identified and formulated (if at all) only after the discovery of a solution.

How would this translate in a development context? Take the case of two women empowerment programmes we have been involved with in emerging economies: in both cases, programme formulation based on traditional analytical approaches (problem definition based on context analysis, surveys, research) led both organisations to approaches that they recognised as ineffective and “stale”.

In search for ways to expand their toolkit, they embarked on an innovation journey that started with field work, reframing assumptions and leading to the development of prototypes to be tested. In both cases, the (admittedly, artificially compressed due to time contraints) exercise of iteratively refining the problem definition broadened the scope of solutions explored, but remained largely within the confines of fairly traditional development interventions (e.g. support for women-ran small businesses, campaigns to raise awareness of gender discrimination, etc.).

Contrast this with a different strategy: a broad search for citizen-led initiatives in the respective countries that led to the discovery of an award-winning collective of all female biohackers and an extremely successful Guerilla Gardener group, led by a woman and with significant female participation. These two homegrown groups, both unknown to the women empowerment organisations, had a number of characteristics in common:

  • They had partially, obliquely “solved” (ex post) the women empowerment problem - or at least pointed to a potential solution - without ever defining it (ex ante) or in fact using the phrase. In fact, neither of them set out to solve women empowerment issues in the first place.
  • Having solved their problem, neither group had a particular interest in spreading their approach.
  • Both organisations were homegrown and, arguably, more sustainable in the long term than donor-driven initiatives.

Arguably, no problem definition exercise would have led the two organisations we worked with to explore guerilla gardening or biohacking as part of their solution space.

Exploring new defaults

"Those eeking out existence on the margins of society grasp the simple elegance of the positive deviance (PD) approach – in contrast to the sceptical consideration of the more educated and/or privileged. Uptake seems in inverse proportion to prosperity, formal authority, years of schooling and degrees hanging on walls."

- Duncan Green

It is our belief that solution first approaches (as defined above) are worth further exploration in a development context. In particular, it is worth testing the hypothesis that a solution first default might lead to better results than the current problem definition default when it comes to complex social issues.

So how can we institutionalise “falling in love” with the solution space (and need/solution pairs)? Von Hippel and Von Gogh point to two strategies:

  1. Direct discovery of need/solution pairs
    An approach that would fit in this category in the development sector are the innovation walks promoted by the National Innovation Foundation in India. These take place in rural areas and are aimed at documenting innovative local practice. In this case, need and potentially useful solutions “come packaged together” - there is no need for extensive problem definition exercises or worry about solutions that are not context dependent. Asset mapping can also be seen as a way of exploring the solution space and identifying need/solution pairs without embarking on problem definition.
  2. Positive deviance and lead user innovation
    These approaches are hybrid in that they do often require a problem formulation, but one that is purposely left very broad. This allows for a much broader search for need/solution pairs than a narrow problem statement would. Positive deviance has of course been around for a while in the development sector, following its successful implementation in fighting malnutrition in Vietnam. However, sadly, it is far from common practice. Lead user innovation, to our knowledge, has been largely neglected by the development sector, except when it comes to the associated concept of frugal innovation.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent is planning to proactively explore the solutions first approach across a number of countries in coming years. We are interested to test through concrete interventions whether providing our staff with skills to map local solutions, positive deviants and lead innovators can lead to the discovery of new insights and more sustainable results.

If you are interested in joining our journey, please leave a comment.


Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Senior Programme Manager in Innovation Skills

Giulio was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Skills team, responsible for advising international development and public sector organisations on the implementation of their...

View profile
Bas Leurs

Bas Leurs

Bas Leurs

Head of Learning Experience Design

Bas is Head of Learning Experience Design in the Innovation Skills team. His role is to ensure that Nesta’s learning experiences – whether online or face-to-face – are high quality, ...

View profile

Shaun Hazeldine

Shaun is Global Innovation Lead at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva.