Exercise: Fast-track problem-based idea creation

To come up with good ideas, we need to understand the problem we’d like solve. This exercise is a fast-paced idea creation process, where developing a good problem understanding is the core and starting point.

90 – 120 minutes
Developing problem understanding, and moving quickly into a proposed solution

By Eirik Medbø, Innovation Manager, NTNU

About the exercise

This exercise will help you guide your students work their way from a “fuzzy” problem definition through to a defined sub-problem and idea, within a short span of time. The process builds on methodology from the domain of Design Thinking / Design Sprint. The exercise requires problem statements within topics that are familiar or relatable to the students, and/or problems that are well described by an external stakeholder. At the end of the workshop, students will end up with an outline for a possible solution, which the students can later test for feasibility.
Through the process, the students will understand the importance of and get tools to simplify “fuzzy” problems into more concrete, actionable sub-problems. Spending time together on really defining the problem enhances the understanding of the problem and communication of ideas, compared to jumping straight to a brainstorm.

The students will also learn to practice effectuation – the process will be relatively fast-paced without elaborative discussions, knowledge sourcing or technical work. This facilitates working in iterations – if finding a new idea can be done quickly, abandoning their existing “bad” idea won’t seem as risky to the students.

Students can do the process a lot faster than two hours when they’ve learned it. This means that it enables students to scrap their ideas, go back and do a new ideation process if their ideas fail in a testing or prototyping phase – allowing for them to fail and restart, to adapt to new insight.

Usage Suggestions

This exercise fits multidisciplinary groups of students at any level, within most disciplines. It is especially recommended for students at an early stage of any entrepreneurship-related activity or course, or as a way to start hackathons or short projects. For project work, this exercise could be coupled with activities where students test the ideas developed, through talking to stakeholders, making prototypes or do lab testing, and/or work with users or customers.

The exercise would work best with groups of up to 40 students, as more groups would increase the chance of single groups “lagging behind”.

Learning Objectives

  • Learning ways to developing problem understanding
  • Understand the importance of problem development before diving into solutions
  • Understand how to do effectuation – fast assumption-based decision making
  • Understand how fast decisions simplify iterative problem-solving

Materials list and physical space

Materials list:
– One or a small range of problem statements: These should be quite broad problems, with various different sub-problems. Some examples could be “Plastic in the ocean hurts marine animals” or “Our public transport contributes to global warming”
– Sticky notes (10-15 for each student)
– Sharpies / pens for all students
– Large sheet (size A3 or larger) where groups can draw a “problem tree” together
– Optional: Additional large sheets or similar for making a final “idea poster”.
– Optional: Visible timer / countdown clock to give groups a sense of urgency to complete every step during the alotted time

Examples of “fuzzy problems”

Remember to write problems as actual problems! Do not write the problems in the form of “How could we reduce plastic waste in the sea?”, but rather in the form of “There is large amounts of plastic waste in the sea”. The latter form avoids any misunderstanding when students develop problem trees.

Examples of such problems could be:
“Waste in the ocean harms marine life”
“Restaurants and hotels throw away large amounts of food every day”
“Too many people choose to use their private cars to get around the city”

Physical space:
Room with group layout – 4-5 students in each group

Human resources

It is beneficial to have one facilitator / educator for each 5-6 groups, to be able to assist the groups during group work.

Pre-work required by students


Theoretical Foundations

  • Sarasvathy, S.D. (2001) Causation and effectuation: Toward a theoretical shift from economic inevitability to entrepreneurial contingency. Academy of management Review
  • Thienen, J. et.al (2017) Theoretical Foundations of Design Thinking: Part I: John E. Arnold’s Creative Thinking Theories. Design Thinking Research. Making Distinctions: Collaboration versus Cooperation (pp.13-40), Springer

Time Plan

Step 0: Introduction to exercise and problem statements (5-10 minutes):
Tell the students why we’re doing this exercise (e.g “We want to develop some ideas that we could use further in our project”). Also, tell them that the exercise might feel quick – that they won’t have much time for extensive discussions or elaborations, or to dig out information from books, the internet or other sources.
If you’d like, you could show them the five steps of the exercise, so they get a broad idea about the totality of the exercise. You could also talk to them about why we’re doing it fast – to enable them to find a new idea fast, if the old idea doesn’t hold up at a later stage in the project.
Lastly, talk about the problem statements that the students would work from – one, or a set of problem statements, that the students can choose from.

Step 1: Problem Development (15-20 minutes):
Quickly introduce the students to the concept of a problem tree, by walking them through a simple, understandable problem tree (An example is shown in the attached image below, using a car as an example). Tell them to develop problem trees for their chosen problem – to do this, they need to ask “why?”, to develop sub-causes (e.g. “why could it be that my car won’t start?”). They should continue asking “why?” for these sub-causes until they’re struggling to find answers – then they have developed a set of “root causes”.


The Problem Development phase is the most important phase of the exercise. If groups aren’t able to get going on their problem trees, talk to them, and ask them “why’s” related to the problem definition, and help them talk through possible causes. If groups seem to jump straight to root causes (they might already see an idea to solve it), make them go from the root cause and “up the tree” by asking “and what does that lead to?”

Step 2: Choose root cause and brainstorm ideas (10 minutes):
In this phase, first give the students a few minutes to decide together which of the root causes they’d like to work with. They could for instance decide based on how important they think different root causes are, or based on their personal preferences.
When all groups have chosen a root cause, give them a set amount of minutes (for instance 7 minutes) to brainstorm individually, and write ideas on sticky notes. The whole class should be silent during this brainstorm. Some ground rules for using sticky notes are:

  • Only one idea per sticky note
  • Write in “headlines” – don’t write all the reasons why an idea is good or unnecessary details

Step 3: Describing ideas to the rest of the group (10 minutes):
Have the groups go round the table, and every student describe or explain their ideas to the rest of their group. During this step, it is important to remind the groups that they should be quick and don’t dive too much into detail.


As an educator, be active and vocal! Tell the groups that they need to move fast. Some groups will feel like they’re being pushed on time in certain steps. Acknowledge that feeling, and this is often how “real-world” problem solving looks like. Make the students aware

Step 4: Choosing an idea (10 minutes):
This could be done in many ways – two options are:
The Effort/Impact coordinate system: Have the groups make a coordinate system with two axes: One axis defined as “Effort” (how hard would this idea be to implement), and the other defined as “Impact” (how big of an impact could this idea have, if we succeed). Have the students discuss through the ideas, and (qualitatively) put them into the coordinate system. The ideas with low effort and high impact would be the most attractive ideas.
Personal voting: Have each student use a marker pen or sharpie, and give “dots” as votes for each idea. Students would get a set number of votes – for instance five, and vote for the ideas they like the most. They’re allowed to vote for their own ideas, and they’re allowed to give several votes for one idea. If there is no clear winner after one round of voting, have students remove all ideas with 0 or 1 vote, and give them 3 more votes to do a second round of voting.

Step 5: Idea presentation (15 minutes – optional):
When the groups have chosen one idea, let them describe the idea quickly – through a (hand-made) poster, slides on a computer, a short “pitch”. Have them make a drawing or illustration, an enticing name of the idea, what root cause the idea could solve, and a few bullet points that describe the main benefits or functions. Have students present the ideas quickly in front of the rest of the class.

Key Takeaways

A key takeaway to highlight to the students, are that they can use this process in later stages of a project, to be able to switch from a “bad idea” earlier, and quickly get on to a new idea or path.
They should also be made aware of how their problem development using the “Problem tree” actually simplified the task of finding good ideas – they made their “fuzzy problem” more concrete.


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