Defining the Problem

Lead facilitator: Guy Parsonage

Partner & Leader, PwC Experience Centre Hong Kong

A well-defined problem contains a hidden solution: ask the right question and you get the right answer. But clients often have an inherent bias when addressing a problem, so it is important to find focus and refine the scope of questioning. The topic of this particular workshop was defining a problem to achieve the right answer.

Recap of Design Thinking Models

The group split into teams to discuss personal favourites of design thinking models and why they found them useful. The “Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test” model proved to be popular, as it places importance on defining and solving the root cause of problems and providing a route map to solve them. Participants also agreed that the Double Diamond model of convergent and divergent thinking can also be useful, as it prescribes doing the right thing and then doing things right. In fact, all design thinking models have places of overlap and it is useful to consider different models and how they might be applied.

Generating ideas: Defining the Terrain

The exercise began with participants brainstorming hypothetical problems in three sectors: business, societal and technological. Sub-teams then set about solving them. Team 1 chose to focus on maximising the use of Hong Kong’s rooftops; Team 2 opted for information literacy; and Team 3 chose to tackle recycling programmes in Hong Kong.

Creating Problem Statements

The next step is to reformulate the problems and create problem statements; they should be human-centric and broad enough to provoke creative thinking, yet manageable given the scope of resources.

The group used the design thinking toolbox and templates to create problem statements. A problem statement provides the framework for arriving at solutions while templates help summarise the core problem in simple sentences, develop a common understanding of it, and generate a statement broad enough for creative flow but narrow enough for the resources available to the team.

Ask the Right Question

Preparatory questions that help summarise the question can be framed in terms of why, who, what, when, where and how. For example:

  • WHY is the problem important? WHY did it occur? WHY hasn’t it been solved?
  • WHO is involved? WHO is affected? WHO is the decision maker?
  • WHAT do we already know about the problem? WHAT would we like to know? WHAT are the assumptions that should be questioned?
  • WHEN did the problem start? WHEN would you like to see results?
  • WHERE is the problem? WHERE has it been solved? WHERE have there been similar situations?
  • HOW could this problem be turned into an opportunity? HOW might it be solved? HOW have attempts been made to solve it?

Team 1 problem statement:
How to increase the usage of rooftops for the people of Hong Kong so companies are incentivised to create rooftop gardens to save money and enhance their corporate image.

Team 2 problem statement:
How to develop a mindset to evaluate content so fewer people are exposed to fake news on social media platforms.

Team 3 problem statement:
How to develop a recycling programme for public housing estate residents that takes account of existing infrastructure and best-in-class global examples.

Reframing the Question

A psychological approach to a problem is complementary to a technical one. Oeganisation needs to look at different perspectives to reframe a problem: to rethink the issue to ask the right questions; engage the right people; assume nothing while questioning everything; and brainstorm bad ideas as well as good ones.

Deeper insights can be gained by looking at the problem from the perspective of different stakeholders: decision maker, implementer and end user. Ask what their pain points are and why they are a problem.

Use the iceberg model to uncover the real problem. On the surface is what appears to be happening, but you must go deeper to scrutinise patterns of behaviour, what physical, organisational political or ritual structures influence these patterns, and ultimately the underlying values and beliefs that support these structures. By assessing the original problem, it can be analysed more closely. This will enable you to reframe the problem and be ready to innovate.

Reframing is essential, as it breaks through accepted ways of thinking and generates bold solutions.

Taking the example of Team 2’s exercise, the reframed problem might be put thus: “How might we restructure the relationships between social media platforms, content provider and the people who make them accountable for their actions.”


Redefining and reframing the problem can help us articulate it so that we may proceed to the ideation phase. Focus on doing the right thing – this enables the problem to become a springboard for ideation.