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Define the Problem to Be Solved

Define the Problem to Be Solved

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PREPARE

In this phase you'll begin to think through the problem you're trying to solve, estimate the necessary resources and consider partnerships within and outside government. This will help identify goals and desired outcomes and determine if a challenge is the appropriate tool for achieving results.

Other Phases

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Define the Problem to Be Solved

Developing and documenting a detailed understanding of your problem is critical to the success of any challenge. This is one of the most important parts of the design process, so you'll see it referenced in this guide again and again.

In this step you define WHAT you're trying to achieve, not HOW it should be achieved. Do some research and analyze why the problem hasn't been solved yet. Identify needed breakthroughs and organize workshops to test assumptions. Use the information you gather to draft a concise problem statement that serves as an initial focus for your challenge.

When analyzing why a problem hasn't yet been solved, ask yourself:

  • What is the history of the problem?
  • What are the known or potential root causes?
  • What does a viable solution look like?
  • Who will be using it?
  • What features must it have?
  • What features would you like it to have?

This step gives you the opportunity to engage potential partners and collaborators to shape the challenge and ensure a common understanding of the problem being addressed.

Key Takeaways

1. Engage many people who know the problem space well.

Doing extensive research about the space around your problem is important foundational work. Reach out to people within and outside your agency who are intimately familiar with the problem and even those who have attempted to solve it. You'll gain an appreciation for perspectives often overlooked. It may feel chaotic and time consuming, but this process is critical in forming a high-quality problem statement that will attract many well-informed solvers.

Ask your attorneys how to obtain outside input within the parameters of the Paperwork Reduction Act and Federal Advisory Committee Act. If you have time early in your exploration process, allow for input on the challenge design before the rules are finalized from the broader community. You can accomplish this through a request for information (RFI).

2. Socialize your problem statement with leadership.

Most challenge designers are reluctant to ask their leadership for feedback about the problem statement before a full design is completed. Don't be. This can be detrimental to the whole process.

You can frame a problem in various ways that have significant implications on the quality and relevance of solutions, as well as who may be interested in helping to solve the problem. A challenge designer can spend an enormous amount of time crafting a well-thought-out problem statement.

Get buy-in from agency leadership early in the process. It will help avoid resistance and complication in areas of your agency that are out of your control.

3. Think early about simple ways to frame the problem.

Your problem statement will generate understanding and support within your agency and certain communities, but you need to make sure everyone gets it.

Find simple and catchy ways to communicate the problem, no matter how complex it is. While formulating variations to your problem statement, work with your communications or public affairs team to come up with clever and memorable ways to communicate the problem. Think about how you would articulate it through tweets and other social media. It helps to frame the problem as a goal to meet or barrier to break.

4. Do your research and determine if the problem can be easily measured or quantified.

Do both primary (interviews with stakeholders) and secondary (literature review) research on your problem. Performing a "state-of-innovation" analysis establishes an evidence-based framework for determining the prize fund amount and the desired outcomes of the competition. This information will help you set the minimum performance criteria that competitors need to achieve. It also can determine how far beyond the current state that would drive innovation. Also, your primary research can generate excitement about the upcoming prize and attract judges, mentors and participants for the competition.

Consider doing a Porter Analysis of the ecosystem around your problem as well. This can help you understand threats of new entrants, bargaining power of suppliers, threats of substitutes and bargaining power of buyers.

Effective problem statements convey quantifiable objectives and parameters, such as a specific amount, rate of change and measure of impact (who, where, when and how). Determine early whether there are easy, accessible, inexpensive means to measure the metrics that define your problem. If not, then part of your design process needs to be the definition of new measurements, testing protocols and support services to potential solvers. If providing such additional capabilities makes your prize program impractical, then consider different formulations of the problem or proxies for those measurements.

Running a fair and equitable prize program begins with the right problem statement.

5. Learn from others and keep refining.

Study as many challenges as you possibly can on Challenge.gov. Look at competitions outside of government as well. Reach out to the people involved to learn about the internal decisions and compromises they made in developing their problem statements. Ask them for feedback on your own problem definition.

Take time to meet with partners, collaborators and end-users to ensure consensus and shared understanding of the problem statement and measures.

Still have questions?

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Case Studies