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The purpose of answering the questions in this step is to explain why your organization should attempt to solve the problem. It is not unusual for an organization to be working on problems that are no longer in sync with its strategy or mission. In that case, the effort and perhaps the whole initiative should be reconsidered. It needed to involve something that people would buy. In for-profit companies, the desired benefit could be to reach a revenue target, attain a certain market share, or achieve specific cycle-time improvements.

That benefit would be measured by market impact: How many families are paying for the solution?

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How is it affecting their lives? Are sales and installation creating jobs? Given the potential benefits, EWV deemed the priority to be high. Assume that a solution is found. Someone in the organization must be responsible for carrying it out—whether that means installing a new manufacturing technology, launching a new business, or commercializing a product innovation. That person could be the problem champion, but he or she could also be the manager of an existing division, a cross-functional team, or a new department. In addition to his technical background, Naugle had a track record of successfully implementing similar projects.

His part of the project involved getting the private sector to manufacture treadle pumps and manually drill wells. It is important at this stage to initiate a high-level conversation in the organization about the resources a solution might require. Even at the outset, you may have an inkling that implementing a solution will be much more expensive than others in the organization realize.

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  • 1. The Modal Characterization of the Essential/Accidental Property Distinction?

The result of such a discussion might be that some constraints on resourcing must be built into the problem statement. Early on in its drinking water project, EWV set a cap on how much it would devote to initial research and the testing of possible solutions. Now that you have laid out the need for a solution and its importance to the organization, you must define the problem in detail.

This involves applying a rigorous method to ensure that you have captured all the information that someone—including people in fields far removed from your industry—might need to solve the problem. Examining past efforts to find a solution can save time and resources and generate highly innovative thinking. More than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, cleanup teams operating in subarctic waters still struggled because oil became so viscous at low temperatures that it was difficult to pump from barges to onshore collection stations.

The goal was to attract novel suggestions from many fields. One major obstacle was the inability to detect and track the progression of the disease accurately and quickly. Because researchers could not know precisely what stage ALS sufferers had reached, they greatly increased the pool of participants in clinical trials and lengthened their studies, which drove up costs so much that few treatments were developed and evaluated. Instead of framing its initiative as a search for a cure, Prize4Life, a nonprofit organization, focused on making ALS research feasible and effective.

The solution it sought was a biomarker that would enable faster and more-accurate detection and measurement of the progression of the disease.

2. Other Ways of Characterizing the Essential/Accidental Property Distinction

This biomarker lowers the cost of ALS research by providing accurate and timely data that allow researchers to conduct shorter studies with fewer patients. In NASA decided it needed a better way to forecast solar flares in order to protect astronauts and satellites in space and power grids on Earth. This data-driven approach not only invited solvers from various fields but also enabled NASA to provide instant feedback, using its archived data, on the accuracy of proposed models.

The aim here is to find solutions that might already exist in your organization and identify those that it has disproved. By answering this question, you can avoid reinventing the wheel or going down a dead end. In previous efforts to expand access to clean water, EWV had offered products and services ranging from manually drilled wells for irrigation to filters for household water treatment.

As with all its projects, EWV identified products that low-income consumers could afford and, if possible, that local entrepreneurs could manufacture or service. As Naugle and his team revisited those efforts, they realized that both solutions worked only if a water source, such as surface water or a shallow aquifer, was close to the household.

As a result, they decided to focus on rainwater—which falls everywhere in the world to a greater or lesser extent—as a source that could reach many more people. More specifically, the team turned its attention to the concept of rainwater harvesting. Here was the problem that needed to be solved.

EWV found that existing solutions for storing rainwater, such as concrete tanks, were too expensive for low-income families in developing countries, so households were sharing storage tanks. But because no one took ownership of the communal facilities, they often fell into disrepair. Consequently, Naugle and his team homed in on the concept of a low-cost household rainwater-storage device. Their research into prior solutions surfaced what seemed initially like a promising approach: storing rainwater in a gallon jar that was almost as tall as an adult and three times as wide.

In Thailand, they learned, 5 million of those jars had been deployed over five years. After further investigation, however, they found that the jars were made of cement, which was available in Thailand at a low price. Indeed, through interviews with villagers in Uganda, EWV found that even empty polyethylene barrels large enough to hold only 50 gallons of water were difficult to carry along a path.

It became clear that a viable storage solution had to be light enough to be carried some distance in areas without roads. Are you sure that you can obtain the money and the people to implement the most promising one? External constraints are just as important to evaluate: Are there issues concerning patents or intellectual-property rights?

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Are there laws and regulations to be considered? Answering these questions may require consultation with various stakeholders and experts. Do you have the necessary support for soliciting and evaluating possible solutions? Do you have the money and the people to implement the most promising one? Consequently, EWV decided to test the storage solution in Uganda.

The problem statement, which captures all that the organization has learned through answering the questions in the previous steps, helps establish a consensus on what a viable solution would be and what resources would be required to achieve it. A full, clear description also helps people both inside and outside the organization quickly grasp the issue. Thus the institute was able to solve in a matter of months a challenge that had stumped petroleum engineers for years.

The aim here is to drill down to root causes. Complex, seemingly insoluble issues are much more approachable when broken into discrete elements. For EWV, this meant making it clear that the solution needed to be a storage product that individual households could afford, that was light enough to be easily transported on poor-quality roads or paths, and that could be easily maintained. EWV conducted extensive on-the-ground surveys with potential customers in Uganda to identify the must-have versus the nice-to-have elements of a solution.

That is, it could be something that local small-scale entrepreneurs could manufacture. The winning solution, shown here in a Ugandan village, met all the criteria. An estimate of the cost of operating and maintaining the device over three years and a clear explanation of how to repair and replace components. A means, such as a tap or a pump, of extracting water without contaminating the contents of the unit. Features such as a modular design or salvageable parts that would add value to the device after its lifetime.

To engage the largest number of solvers from the widest variety of fields, a problem statement must meet the twin goals of being extremely specific but not unnecessarily technical. It may and probably should include a summary of previous solution attempts and detailed requirements. With those criteria in mind, Naugle and his team crafted a problem statement. The following is the abstract; for the full problem statement, visit hbr.

The solution is expected to facilitate access to clean water at a household level, addressing a problem that affects millions of people worldwide who are living in impoverished communities or rural areas where access to clean water is limited. Domestic rainwater harvesting is a proven technology that can be a valuable option for accessing and storing water year round. However, the high cost of available rainwater storage systems makes them well beyond the reach of low-income families to install in their homes.

A solution to this problem would not only provide convenient and affordable access to scarce water resources but would also allow families, particularly the women and children who are usually tasked with water collection, to spend less time walking distances to collect water and more time on activities that can bring in income and improve the quality of life. What information about the proposed solution does your organization need in order to invest in it?

For example, would a well-founded hypothetical approach be sufficient, or is a full-blown prototype needed?

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EWV decided that a solver had to submit a written explanation of the solution and detailed drawings. The point of asking this question is to ensure that the right people are motivated to address the problem. For internal solvers, incentives can be written into job descriptions or offered as promotions and bonuses. For external solvers, the incentive might be a cash award.

Addressing this question forces a company to be explicit about how it will evaluate the solutions it receives. Clarity and transparency are crucial to arriving at viable solutions and to ensuring that the evaluation process is fair and rigorous.

Most of the time, however, it is a sign that earlier steps in the process have not been approached with sufficient rigor. EWV stipulated that it would evaluate solutions on their ability to meet the criteria of low cost, high storage capacity, low weight, and easy maintenance. The overarching goal was to keep costs low and to help poor families justify the purchase.

The solution he proposed required no elaborate machinery; in fact, it had no pumps or moving parts.

Fundamental vs. Technical Analysis: What's the Difference?

It was an established industrial technology that had not been applied to water storage: a plastic bag within a plastic bag with a tube at the top. The two-bag approach allowed the inner bag to be thinner, reducing the price of the product, while the outer bag was strong enough to contain a ton and a half of water. The structure folded into a packet the size of a briefcase and weighed about eight pounds. In short, the solution was affordable, commercially viable, could be easily transported to remote areas, and could be sold and installed by local entrepreneurs.

EWV developed an initial version and tested it in Uganda, where the organization asked end users such questions as What do you think of its weight? Does it meet your needs? Even mundane issues like color came into play: The woven outer bags were white, which women pointed out would immediately look dirty. By the end of May , 50 to 60 shops, village sales agents, and cooperatives were selling the product; more than 80 entrepreneurs had been trained to install it; and 1, units had been deployed in eight districts in southwestern Uganda.