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The Innovation Process
Module 1.2

Starting Point Assessment

Quickly gather and categorise information about your problem

What is it?

Once you have a good idea of the potential problem to solve or opportunity to respond to, the next step is to establish a baseline of existing knowledge regarding the ‘problem area’.

We call this the Starting Point Assessment because the activities in this module encourage you to bring together relevant, readily-available information in order to understand the environment you are stepping into.

The journey towards new and improved solutions should start with a current assessment of the problem, the existing approaches used to address it, and the context in which they occur.

“Innovating teams … identified ‘research on the problem’ as a key factor that could have assisted the innovation in its early stages, primarily in making a stronger case for innovation to external stakeholders.”  (Obrecht and Warner, 2016)

This module aims to help you generate useful information on these important areas. The point is not to ‘overdo’ it – but instead to rapidly gather enough information to make a ‘good enough’ assessment of the problem. The focus of this research ought to be determined on a case-by-case basis, according to what sort of information is needed.

Why should I do it?

Understanding the baseline of existing knowledge will bring you closer toward a proper diagnosis of the root causes of a problem and the factors that contribute to it, helping you to move beyond the presenting symptoms.

A good-enough analysis will strengthen your problem diagnosis through the collection and use of different kinds of relevant information, and by bringing you closer to those who are facing challenges and might benefit from new solutions.

This module will help you to reach a deeper, more holistic understanding of the problem, and will provide you (and other relevant stakeholders, such as operational partners and/or donors) with useful baseline information by which to evaluate the impact of the solution you develop later on in the innovation journey.

It will enable you to develop criteria for things to pay attention to (priority areas, concerns, questions, etc) later in the process, and prevent you from wasting time in trying to solve the wrong problem for the wrong people.

How do I do it?

Setting out to gather information can be a daunting task. Luckily, there’s a guide to help you! Answering the following questions will set you on the right track:

  • Ready: Which kinds of knowledge are relevant at the outset of my project, and which are not?
  • Set: What do we already know or feel confident about? What kinds of knowledge are readily available?
  • Go! How can we generate, gather and collect information to fill gaps in existing knowledge?

Note: We recommend that for this module you complete all of the activities sequentially. 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 in different parts of the Guide.

Follow our user stories

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

At an afternoon workshop, Hanna brings together senior members of staff from the different agencies working in the camp, along with WASH specialists and Protection specialists, to map out what is known about the trend in open-air defecation and the outstanding questions they need to address.

Together the group map out what they know about the problem, the local context, and past and current efforts to improve the latrines, drawing on their previous Target Group exercise.

The group has a lot of unanswered questions. There remains wide disagreement on the precise needs and requirements of particular groups, and the viability of making changes to the current model of service provision. There are further disagreements on whether the issue can be solved by technical solutions, or whether it is also requires a behaviour change approach.

After mapping out their outstanding questions and how they intend to address them, tasks are allocated to different members of the group. Hanna arranges a focus group discussion (FGDs) with a women’s group in the area, who have previously voiced concerns about the latrines. She also arranges a visit to the camp’s health clinic to talk to some of the patients about their experiences. Hanna carries out a thorough risk assessment and is careful to ensure the women feel safe and comfortable participating.

The FGDs uncover some particularly interesting insights about the perceived dangers that the latrines pose for small children, in particular, as well as the physical location of the latrines in relation to where members of the group are living.

When visiting the health clinic, she learns that several people with conflict-related injuries have experienced accessibility problems when using the camp facilities. Hanna remains unsure how to prioritise and address the different concerns she has uncovered, and what this means for the current model of sanitation provision.

Sergio manages to get his IT company interested in his side project and persuades them to grant himself and a colleague a few hours each week to work on it. He arranges a follow-up workshop with the NGO so they can start to map out what they know about the problem and what they need to find out.

It’s not an easy discussion. Sometimes they end up talking about the potential problems of using drones, and how they can be addressed, before realising that they have drifted away from the core challenge. While they realise the need to start with the problem, they find it difficult to stop thinking about the application of solutions.

They map out their ‘known knowns’ so they have a shared baseline of information, but they quickly realise that there are quite a few gaps in understanding around their initial problem statement. Are they assessing buildings to evaluate damage or to locate survivors? Is Hifando region the most vulnerable to this problem in future? Are the ‘first responders’ the communities themselves, or is it the NGO staff?

They develop a plan to answer some of these questions through further research, interviews with local government, and a visit to one of the communities in Hifando region worst affected by the most recent hurricane. After completing this research over the course of a few weeks, they decide to focus down on assessing damage to buildings, with NGO and local government staff as the problem holders.


1.2 A Understand key research concepts
Before you go any further, this primer is aimed at familiarising you with some key concepts and frameworks that you will need to draw upon during the rest of the module.
1.2 B Establish what you know
The aim of this activity is to understand what people in your team or across your organisation already know about a problem and existing efforts to solve it.
1.2 C Identify your outstanding questions (and how to answer them)
The exercise in this activity will help you to identify and prioritise your outstanding questions – your known unknowns – and the best way to rapidly gather reliable information on each of them.
1.2 D Answer your outstanding questions
This activity involves carrying out desk reviews, interviews and focus group discussions (FGDs), and direct observations to answer the questions you have identified in the previous activity.