In product development it is not only crucial to really understand the problem to solve, that is, to find the root cause. It is equally important how to formulate the problem. What we say and write reflects our thinking. Conversely, our thinking is influenced by what we hear and read. If we want to find a breakthrough solution, we have to make sure that we express ourselves in a way that actively stimulates our own and other people’s creativity instead of the opposite.

Think of the regularly recurring problem in your garden: the grass grows too long. It is very natural to think of a solution in terms of “I have to mow the lawn”. But then you unintentionally eliminate all conceivable alternative solutions that do not involve some cutting device. In order to find a radically different type of solution, you have to think of and formulate the problem differently. So, what is it that you really want here? Most of us would be more than happy if we didn’t have to mow our lawns, so what about “a lawn with blades that are always the right length”. This says nothing whatsoever about how to accomplish this, so it doesn’t exclude any type of solution. Maybe it is possible to develop a type of grass with blades that always repair themselves if they are damaged, but never grow beyond a certain length? That would eliminate the need for lawn mowing.

The advent of powered flight would surely have been delayed if the Wright Brothers (too) had formulated their problem as “flying like a bird”. Instead they effectively thought of it as “moving through air”, without presuming anything about the nature of the solution. If we force ourselves – and active suppression of the most “natural” formulation is probably necessary before this thinking becomes natural – to formulate our problems solution-independently, we don’t say anything at all about what a solution should look like, only what it should do for us. This removes obstacles that otherwise make our thinking revolve around already existing solutions, and it opens up our minds to fundamentally new and different ideas that can lead to truly groundbreaking solutions.