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How to Reframe Obstacles as Opportunities for Curiosity

Space is a heck of a place to run into problems.

In the 1995 movie Apollo 13 there’s an iconic scene in which NASA Flight Director, Gene Kranz, (played by Ed Harris) draws a map of the Earth and Moon on a blackboard.

It had been two days into the mission when an oxygen tank failed aboard the spaceship causing an explosion in the main service module. Without the module operating, the crew had to move to the lunar landing module as a lifeboat.

In the scene, Kranz gathers the mission operations team and draws a map of the flight trajectory that the damaged Apollo 13 would need to track to return back to Earth safely. It was a simple map for a complex problem.

Over the course of the next five days they would have to navigate a series of obstacles that required the crew and the mission operations team to find creative solutions. Anything and everything was on the table.

Every time a new problem emerged, Kranz gathered his team around the blackboard to discuss the challenge around their central goal: get the crew back home safely.

Reframing Obstacles as Opportunities for Curiosity

It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going wrong or what could go wrong. But maybe there’s a better way of looking at obstacles? 

In fact, problems themselves can be an opportunity for creativity and innovation. When teams can gain clarity about the problem and break it down into questions to find answers to, we might just create the space for innovation to happen.

Here’s an activity to try with your team at your next (remote) meeting called Starting at the End.

It sounds obvious but one of the most forgotten steps when launching a new project is clarifying the objective. Even taking the first 30-60 minutes of a project to talk through these questions as a group can help clarify the direction and rally your team around a common goal.

Here’s the first question:

  1. Why are we working on this project or problem?

Take your time with this question. Beyond the obvious answers around hitting certain metrics or deliverables, there may be some deeper whys that emerge from you and your team that create an emotional connection to the problem you’re solving. Just like the mission operations team rallied around “get the crew home”, this will be your team’s core motivator.

  1. Where do we want to be 12-18 months from now?

Depending on the scope of the problem, you may want toggle with the timeframe here. Maybe it’s 6 months or even 5 years? Personally, 12-18 months is a sweet spot if you’re looking for a balance between an aspirational goal while also being focused on tangible milestones you want to achieve.

  1. Imagine we travel into the future and our project failed. What caused it to fail? What went wrong?

Now we switch gears. In the first two questions, we painted a picture about what success might look like, but now we want to look at the obstacles in the way.

Note that after you pose this question to the team, it’s natural that the energy in the room might dip. Uncertainty is uncomfortable especially if it’s a project you’re excited about. But it’s important to embrace this tension and make sure everyone in the room has a chance to share what they might be worried about before we move onto the final step.

  1. To reach our goals, what questions do we need answered?

This is the last, and the most important step.

Now that we have a list of challenges we might encounter, we’re going to reframe them into questions. Problems create uncertainty but interesting questions help activate curiosity.

Problems create uncertainty but interesting questions help activate curiosity.

Here’s how you’re going to phrase the questions: “How Might We…” 

How Might We (HMW) questions transform the mindset of your team by helping them consider  the possibilities. We’re all so wired to fix things, but what innovation needs is more curiosity and space to explore. Here are a couple of examples of transforming some existing obstacles & assumptions into HMW questions:

Solving a Big Problem? Consider a Five-Day Design Sprint.

The activity above comes from a process designed by Jake Knapp and John Zeratzky called a Design Sprint. In fact, it’s one of the first activities you’d do in the sprint to gain clarity on what you’re trying to solve.

Here’s what that process looks like:

  1. You spend the first day identifying your goals and mapping the current process for your key stakeholders. 
  2. On the second day you focus on ideating and unleashing your team’s creativity. 
  3. On the third day, you decide on the ONE area you want to prototype a solution for. 
  4. And by the time Friday rolls around you’re actually testing your solution with real clients.

Thinking five days is too short to prototype a new solution? Take this example of an insurance company that condensed 6 months of meetings & discussions to come up with a prototype in 5 days.

The best part is that not only are you reducing risk, you’re saving time. One of the characteristics of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world we live in is that the rules change quickly. If your launch timeline isn’t reaching your audience quickly, the project itself may be too late.

How Are You Thinking About Problems?

On April 17th, 1970 – five days after the launch – Apollo 13 splash downed in the South Pacific. Although fatigued from dehydration, the crew was alive and in good condition. It was an amazing achievement given how dire the situation was only days ago.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out how to solve a problem but we do need a good framework to help us get started. If you’re just about to launch a project, give the activity above a shot and see if you can reframe your obstacles into HMW questions. Your team will thank you for the simple switch in the mindset from uncertainty to curiosity.

P.S. I’m running my second workshop on October 23rd for creative leaders (like yourself!) to bring more fun and innovation to solve your BIG problems. Registration is capped at 10 people and the last session sold out. So grab your ticket early and I hope to see you there!

2 replies on “How to Reframe Obstacles as Opportunities for Curiosity”

I think the “How might we” reframe is a simple, yet amazingly powerful way to look at a problem/opportunity. It’s one of those tools for your tool belt that is useful even outside the design world.

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