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The Innovation Process
Module 1.1

Initial Impressions

Identify a problem and produce a problem statement

What is it?

The beginning of an innovation journey is often marked when a challenge presents itself in either problem symptoms or an opportunity.

In some cases, you might be set in motion by the frustration of business as usual, by products that don’t do the job properly, or by services that aren’t meeting needs. In other cases, you might be inspired to use your knowledge to meet opportunities presented by changes in the sector, or even those made possible through crisis. You might be tasked with a problem to solve as part of your job, or you might be interested in exploring something you’ve observed.

Whatever the case may be, innovators are united in their efforts to address something that isn’t working or could be made better. It’s up to you as an innovator to clearly articulate the need that you are seeking to address.

Why should I do it?

A good innovation process will seek to systematise the way that problems are identified and opportunities explored. It can be difficult to recognise – even at the most preliminary stage – the symptoms of a problem or the features of an opportunity. So, in short, there is a need to ‘jump-start’ this process. Even if you think you have a properly identified problem or opportunity, this module will help you refine and articulate your initial impressions.

Remember, if you are working on an opportunity-driven innovation, any potential solution should still be aimed at solving a well-defined problem. Take the time to carry out problem identification activities and be extremely wary of your biases towards your solution. As the saying goes, ‘If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.

How do I do it?

There are many ways that you might be inspired to start on the innovation journey.

  • You might uncover problems that have already been identified through programme reviews, evaluations, internal performance audits and after-action reports.
  • You might learn first-hand about positive and negative experiences by visiting offices or field sites, and talking to colleagues and community members, or by looking at complaints and feedback mechanisms.
  • You might find inspiration in examining the challenges, barriers and roadblocks that affect the overall performance of existing programmes or reflecting on your own experience.
  • You might exchange new ideas and thinking with colleagues from different organisations and across different sectors, and look to forge new partnerships.
  • You might discover niche opportunities by looking at key trends or changes in regulatory environments.
  • You might find inspiration in the emergence of new technologies, changes to the structure and processes of an organisation, or learning from an ongoing crisis.

The activities that follow will help you to explore a few of these possibilities in more depth.

Note: You do not have to complete all the exercises in the module, although we certainly recommend that you carry out at least 2-3 exercises. There are exercises and tools in this section that will be useful to you throughout your innovation journey, and we will point back to them at later stages.

Follow our user stories

To better understand how the activities might be applied, read our two user stories.

After a recent spike in conflict led to an influx of refugees into the camp, and several days of heavy rainfall, Hanna is worried about deteriorating sanitary conditions. With a background in public health, Hanna is particularly concerned about the risk of a cholera outbreak. She decides to review the recent WASH cluster meeting minutes to see if her concerns are shared.

The influx of new arrivals into the camp has caused severe strains to services, and she comes across reports of open-air defection, supporting her initial concerns.  In a meeting with the organisation responsible for camp management and the organisation leading on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services in the camp, it is clear that everyone agrees there appears to be a growing problem with open-air defecation in the camp.

Hanna suggests that coming to a better understanding of the requirements of different groups might help them to understand why some people are choosing not to use the facilities provided. At their next meeting, she suggests carrying out the User Persona exercise, which leads to questions around the suitability of the pit latrines for small children and people with disabilities. Although they can’t agree on everything as a group, they do agree on the following problem statement:

The problem appears to be an increase in open-air defecation, which is a problem in refugee camps as new groups arrive. It is a problem for the camp population who are at increased risk from a cholera outbreak. 

Sergio has been reading a lot about the efforts of US retailer Amazon to use drones for commercial deliveries and thinks that they might also be useful for delivering supplies in an emergency. He has previously witnessed shortages of food and medicines in the aftermath of a hurricane and hopes that he might be able to develop a solution.

Sergio is relying mostly on anecdotal evidence about the extent of shortages and their causes. Without being sure about the scope of the problem, whether shortages are due to availability or accessibility, and whether drones really offer a better solution than current practice, he risks focusing on solution that does not address a real problem.

In his spare time, Sergio arranges a process mapping workshop to try and better understand relief delivery logistics, bringing together staff from a local medical centre, along with a government representative and members of the community. Through the process, they come to a joint understanding that the key issue is a lack of pre-positioned supplies that could be made immediately available and poor coordination between different actors that lead to further delays in delivery.

Recognising that he is not equipped to address these challenges, Sergio carries out a desk review to look for alternative potential uses and finds a number of case studies using drones for aerial mapping of infrastructure damage. He arranges to visit an NGO who were involved in recent response efforts, and after further discussions to understand potential end users and beneficiaries which uncover some of the challenges the NGO has faced, they decide to pursue the idea further in an informal partnership. They settle on the following problem statement:

The problem appears to be rapid assessment of infrastructure damage in remote areas, which is a problem in Hifundo region in the early response phase after a hurricane. It is a problem for first responders.


1.1 A Learn from evaluations and reports
This activity will help you to understand the problems and opportunities that have already been identified in relation to your area of interest.
1.1 B Assess strengths and weaknesses
There are two potential exercises included in this activity to help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation as a whole, and in particular parts of your organisation.
1.1 C Observe the problem
This activity will help you to generate, capture and describe first-hand observations about existing services or experiences from the perspective of the user (front end) or service provider (back end).
1.1 D Understand users
The exercises in this activity aim to help you generate initial insights into the nature of the problem from the perspective of the user. Gaining user-based insights around needs, expectations, preferences, and/or experiences is critical to ensure a user-centred approach.
1.1 E Use forsight to identify trends
The exercises in this activity aim to explore how trends can create opportunities or problems in your context or in the wider humanitarian sector.
1.1 F Break the dominant logic
The exercise in this activity aims to assess and reconsider the dominant logic of why certain activities and factors are considered important in the sector.
1.1 G Draft a problem statement
If you have clearly identified your problem, then it is time to develop a problem statement. This is an articulation of your initial understanding of the problem.