Why-How-Laddering: Define the right challenge

A good challenge can have a positive influence on the start and progress of an innovation project. In the same way, a challenge that is too general or too openly formulated can also influence the project and procedure. To find the right challenge, you should take your time and pay attention to the correct formulation of the question. In this post, we introduce the Why-How-Laddering method.

What is needed:

  • A moderator
  • Flipchart marker or whiteboard pen
  • A large sheet of paper (A1 or even better A0) or a whiteboard

In Why-How-Laddering, the question of the challenge should be adapted. Questions are always asked upwards with “Why …” and downwards with “How …”. Like climbing up or down in the laddering like on a ladder.

For example, we received the question “How do I become a pop star” for revision. The challenge is an example of a rather unsuitable initial question for a design thinking project. She does not name a specific problem and the target group “I” is very limited.

To revise the question, write it in the middle and then start the process. For example with the question: “Why do I want to become a pop star?”. Answers such as fame, recognition, or attention seem obvious.

To be able to derive a new question from these, it makes sense to include these new terms in the laddering. For example, the question can now be: “How do I get fame?”. On this basis, new fields open up that were not considered by the initial question.

Now the clear solution no longer seems so simple. A reformulation of the challenge could be, for example, “What do I have to do to acquire an extraordinary talent?”. So the very explicit solution has already been opened up a bit. The laddering can be expanded as required.

The method should be carried out until the questions are naturally saturated. Then a new question can be searched for.

What does it take to have a great challenge?

To be able to successfully process a design challenge, it is important from our point of view that three essential basic requirements are met.

  • Does the Design Challenge identify a clear problem? Caution: Symptoms or possible solutions are not the problems in and of themselves: A problem that is too narrowly defined does not offer enough leeway because a possible solution may already be included. On the other hand, a concept that is too broad offers little traction and makes concrete solutions difficult.
  • Has the problem been described from the user’s point of view? Such a change of perspective usually helps enormously in the development and validation of meaningful solutions.
  • Is the situation in which the problem is noticeable to the user clearly described? A good definition of the situation gives important clues as to what the team should experience during the understanding phase through observation and interviews.

At the start of an innovation project or design thinking process, it makes sense to critically deal with the given question or challenge and to reformulate it if necessary. Why-how-laddering can be a good way to shift the level and focus of the initial question.

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