inverse the six ws for problem discovery

Identify the right problem

Who doesn’t love to solve a great mystery? After all, the greatest stories in history tap into that very desire to solve problems; the story presents a mystery and has you follow along as its characters search for the Six Ws. This is particularly engaging because solving problems is directly rooted in our evolutionary need to innovate. But what happens when the problem isn’t apparent? How do you solve something you don’t understand, or worse yet, don’t even know exists?

It’s no surprise, then, that so many businesses place a significant amount of time, effort and resources on continuous improvement and incremental innovation; to protect their core structure is imperative, but more importantly, it’s both tangible and feasible. But breakthrough innovations are only realized when you discover and focus on the real issue at hand. Thus, learning to explore and question the unknown is where the magic truly happens.

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” – Sherlock Holmes

Ask the right questions

Traditionally, the innovation funnel assumes you’ve identified an issue, and that you’ve involved the right players who can suggest, evaluate, prioritize and develop the right ideas until you’ve ‘successfully’ identified the winning solution. In short, people are asked to name their challenge, and then the traditional process is brought to bear to help solve it. But lest we forget that this resource-intensive funnel is, in the end, based purely on assumptions.

So what do you do, then, if you want to discover real solutions and identify real breakthrough opportunities? The answer is simple: do like Sherlock Holmes would do, and question, question, question! True innovators question if they’re even actually solving the right problem. In other words, they look for more questions, not answers. They study the issues until they know them like the back of their hand, and ultimately establish those six crucial Ws: who, what, where, when, why and how. So, by extending your innovation work and spending more time questioning the problem, you‘ll end up hitting the real jackpot.

Look through the right lens

In the interactive film titled Bandersnatch of the Netflix Blackmirror series, you’re asked to make some plot choices which dictate the ending you’ll experience. Typically, innovation is about making these very choices. Your choices will lead you down a set of outcomes, and each alternative could possibly be explored and experimented with. Similarly, breakthrough innovation is about writing a whole new narrative to reveal potentially problematic sources and  sizable opportunities through a different set of lenses.

When you’re looking for focus areas, the right starting point is to make sure you’re working on a genuine problem worth exploring. Start by defining what the possible business outcomes are, as well as the needs you want to focus on. Where do you want to improve? How does this compare to your organization’s core assets and capabilities? Define the various themes and lenses you want to look through. These lenses can encompass key trends impacting your business, clients, markets, industries and maybe even the world. You’re well advised to choose at least a handful of highly impactful ones that allow you to explore different outcomes.

Apply the Six Ws

Now, let’s apply the Six Ws to breakthrough innovation thinking and create a completely different process to discover and evaluate problems. And to do so, you need to think of the Six Ws… in reverse!


Problem discovery stageQuestions to ask to formulate a problem
ActionWhat are you
trying to answer?
CreateHow is this a problem?Develop a rich volume of diverse inputsLook for observations, pieces of knowledge and experiences from all relevant and accessible internal and external data sources. Assemble clues and as many bits of knowledge as possible. Develop weak signals ranging from your customer needs, market dynamics, competitive pressures and evolving technology landscape. How are the clues leading to identifying a problem or opportunity?
ExpandWhen does this problem occur?
Explore and interpret deeper meaningsContextualize the possible meanings from your clues. Look at the world with fresh new eyes and leave preconceived notions aside. Start looking for patterns on where these clues come from, where they lead to, and what they mean. Select clues that have a richness or implication that could be interpreted in different ways. When can the meaning from these clues become reality?
ConnectWhere is this problem?Uncover hidden motivation: needs, wants, and beliefsNow deeper truths can emerge; try to combine your clues and meanings to form a hunch and a creative new belief about the world. Look for patterns in the different types of clues, as well as patterns that seem to illuminate the ‘why’ of consumer behavior. Go beyond obvious patterns, look for something you haven’t seen before. What’s surprising? What’s intriguing? Connect clues together and articulate what they could mean about customer motivation and behavior—what is your hunch? Where are your hunches leading you to?

Search and connect insightsWhat is the problem?Develop the key elements to form insightsNow take it one step further and look to see how these hunches may be connected and what else can be explored to learn more about what they represent. Apply different techniques to randomize your approach, create different mashups and see what these collisions may represent. Look at the hunches and group 3 to 5 of them together that seem to be related. What are they trying to tell you about customer needs, wants, and beliefs? What is the parent thought that links these hunches together?
Evaluate opportunitiesWhy is this a problem?Refine into key insights for the businessYou’re almost at the final stage—this is where you unlock the secret of customer motivation and solve the mystery. Synthesize and vet your hunches into penetrating concepts that look at the world with a fresh new perspective. Don’t hold back as this is the ‘ah-ha!’ moment, which will require rigor, debate, and courage to turn it into reality. Crystallize these final insights and hold on to them as you’ll need them as you embark on your innovation journey. Why do these insights demonstrate a real problem and what is the opportunity you should be seizing on?
Evaluate resultsWho has this problem?Discover and compare possible futuresNow take these possible futures and evaluate them against each other. Consider different scenarios based on a range of criteria being more or less important, including the likelihood of success, the degree to which they are actionable, the possible potential value to the business, and how systemic the type of opportunity is. Congratulations! Now you have a genuine problem in your hands that can lead to a breakthrough innovation opportunity that you need to solve. Now’s the time to describe this challenge, turn your attention to your innovation ecosystem to select the right contributors and start innovating. Who’s plagued by this problem and what possible future impacts will they experience?

Try it yourself

Try this core creative process to generate prospective outcomes to explore in any aspect of your business. To Self-Disrupt means you need to imagine new and different futures that are probable, and then look for ways on how you can piece together and exploit the breadcrumbs into new offerings that help you leapfrog your competition.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” – Sherlock Holmes


The approach described here was inspired by the best selling author Rowan Gibson’s book “The Four Lenses of Innovation: A Power Tool for Creative Thinking” that was used to develop the Planbox Discovery Central process and platform to enable implementation of this systematic and investigative method to establish the real problems to focus on.