Problem Framing: Identify the Obstacles in Your Way

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
Cover Image for Problem Framing: Identify the Obstacles in Your Way

How many times have you found yourself creating a solution to a problem that didn’t exist?

A well-framed problem is the key to a successful solution. Even a slight adjustment in how you look at a problem can lead to a completely different outcome.

This is Part 1 in our series of posts sharing several of our tried and true methods for helping teams frame problems.

The Speed Boat Exercise

The first step in effective problem solving is to recognize the obstacles in your way. We often have blind spots, individually and as teams, that prevent us from seeing all the things that are preventing us from achieving our goals. The speed boat exercise is designed to help with that.

It starts, of course, with a speed boat. This is your means for getting across the water - in other words, your product or service. There are several things both attached to the boat, and in its immediate environment, that either help or hurt its progress in reaching the island - your goal.

There are many ways to structure this exercise, but here’s how we usually break it down:

The Boat: Your initiative, project, product, or service. It’s important for the team to agree on what should be the focus of the exercise and to give it a clear name.

The Island: Your goal. What does success look like for the boat? It’s best if this can be clearly stated as a single goal, but you might have a few things that need to fit on your island.

The Sails or Motor: Your propellants. What is working for you and helping you move toward your goal? This could include environmental factors that come and go (like the wind in your sails), external resources (like the gas in your engine), other teams and support (like rowers on the boat), or your own internal motivations and skills (your engine).

The Anchors: Your dead weight. What is dragging you down and preventing you from moving forward? Maybe you set an anchor for a good reason to pause and get your bearings, but you have to remember to pull those anchors back up before you fire up the engines.

The Waves: Your outside obstacles. What are the obstacles the boat will need to overcome? These are the external environmental factors that you may or may not be able to control but which you can’t avoid on your path to the island.

Speed Boat Exercise@2x

The beauty of this exercise is that you can customize it for any situation. As a team, you identify the name of your boat and the island and brainstorm the other elements so everybody has clarity and a shared vision of the path ahead. You can even ask the team to estimate how much faster the boat would go if the anchors and waves were gone, or if the sails or motor were more efficient.

As you go through the exercise you’ll start to see recurring themes. You’ll also have revelations and insights as you see things you never considered before. But it’s important to remember this isn’t supposed to be a gripe session. The purpose of this activity is to get a new perspective that inspires and empowers the team to create a better way around their challenges.

We’ve used the speed boat exercise with many clients across a wide variety of contexts. It almost never fails to help resolve conflicts over what solution is most urgent or which direction is the right way forward. This simple exercise can help you get clarity on the real problems you need to solve.

This is just one part of our comprehensive design thinking process for building meaningful experiences. Let’s talk about how we can work together to get your team unstuck and back on the path toward your goals.